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What Are the Aims of Humanitarian Aid?

Info: 5458 words (22 pages) Essay
Published: 17th Jul 2019

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Jurisdiction / Tag(s): International Law

In the world of conflicts involving interest of countries, citizen and civilians, there lays a general understanding and concept of humanitarian arising from the personal regulations. Humanitarian here shall be understood as devoting to the promotion of human welfare and the advancement of social reforms, marked by humanistic values as having the interest of mankind at heart. [1] Hence, it rises when it is promoted by those adherents to humanitarianism and here comes the role of aid workers. An aid worker are understood as those who deliver the voluntary acts and conducts which works for an international organization giving help in a place where people need it or in a country where there is war, arm conflicts, natural disasters, no food nor utilities in order to help people. [2] Being an aid worker it requires an ability to adapt to intensively challenging situations and withstand emotional strain. International and development workers focus on meeting the needs of people and communities in the developing countries where they seek to implement long-term solutions to problems by working with developing countries to help them create the capacity to provide sustainable solutions. It involves various fields like education, sanitation, health, agriculture and also small business development.

Thus, an aid worker closely related with humanitarian aid where they are the mediator to all necessary supplies brought to the war-torn areas and countries by third parties, such as neutral countries or relief organizations which specialize in helping civilians during conflicts. [3] In furtherance, humanitarian aid is assistance given to people in distress by individual persons, or governments to relieve suffering. Many full time, professional humanitarian aid organizations exist, both within government and as private voluntary organizations or non-governmental organizations. In Malaysia, Mercy Malaysia is a well-known voluntary and non-profit organization focusing on relief effort and sustainable health related development for vulnerable communities [4] . Its active contributions in all over the world providing medical relief is recognize as an organization which is able to provide rapid response in crises meeting SPHERE standards in its programs and projects, namely civil war in Darfur Iran, tsunami Aceh Indonesia and aid the victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar.


Generally, the most fundamental objective of humanitarian aid is to save the lives, prevent and reduce suffering and to preserve human dignity. Humanitarian aid usually does help insofar as it provides the most basic human needs of food, shelter, clothing, and medical care.  It can also help empower a group of people, enabling them to better deal with their own problems by giving them the strength to address those problems in a coherent way, without having to put all of their energy into simply maintaining themselves. One very notable assumption about the principles and objectives of humanitarianism can be seen in the statement made in agreement between the European Union countries when they established the Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), the statement is made out in the preamble of the EC Council Regulation 1257/1996:

“..humanitarian aid, the sole aim of which is to prevent or relieve suffering, is accorded to victims without discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnic group, religion, sex, age, nationality or political affiliation and must not be guided by, or subject to, political considerations … humanitarian aid decisions must be taken impartially and solely according to the victims’ needs and interests … the independence and impartiality of non-governmental organizations and other humanitarian institutions in the implementation of humanitarian aid must be preserved, respected and encouraged.” [5]

By that it can be seen that the Council Regulation (EC) No 1257/96 concerning humanitarian aid clearly states that the sole aim is to prevent or relieve human suffering and when making the humanitarian aid decisions, they must made impartially and only according to the needs and interests of the victims. And any humanitarian aid shall not be influenced by any political considerations.

Humanitarian aid often comes into the pictures in the occurrence of crises like armed conflicts, natural disasters and various NGOs will step into action to provide assistance. Humanitarian aids are provided from NGOs like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and Mercy Corps and so on.

Humanitarian aid is said to be one of the longest established activities of NGO’s like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). ICRC is an independent and neutral organization that has the aim of ensuring humanitarian support and protection for individuals affected by armed conflicts and other situation of violence. With its neutrality, the ICRC has a permanent mandate under international law like the Geneva conventions to take impartial action for prisoners, sick and wounded, and civilians affected by conflict. [6] The ICRC’s main objective is to ensure respect, through its neutral and independent humanitarian work, for the lives, dignity and physical and mental well-being of victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence. All of the ICRC’s works are geared towards achieving this fundamental objective and strives to fulfill this idea. [7]

The UNICEF is a NGO that help worldwide children by providing nurture, and care for them whom devastated by poverty, violence, disease and discrimination. UNICEF provides education, healthcare, protective environment, nutrition and so on and it is the NGO’s mission to ensure the improvement of the lives of the adversely affected children around the world. [8]

Mercy Corp is also a NGO that strives to provide for those who are affected by poverty, war, famine, disease by giving the victims aid in manner of food aid, development assistance, education, healthcare, financial services, and so on to alleviate sufferings in affected countries. The Mercy Corp is prepared to render assistance in all kinds of situations and they strive to help affected individuals all over the world. [9]

The different aims of different NGOs do affect the humanitarian staffs employed by them. Subject to the aims of the NGOs, the risk is very much variable. For example, NGOs that are particularly active in providing assistance in war zones are supposedly exposing their staffs to higher degree of risk. In such situations the aid workers are much more susceptible to be killed in their progress of carrying out their humanitarian work. One good example of such NGO is the ICRC where they are often deployed to conflict zones to provide aid to victims of war and usually their deployment are in the midst of intense fighting and the staffs’ vulnerability to casualty will be significantly higher.

If the aims of a NGO is directed at activities that are not involved in times of war like providing relief to poverty, malnutrition, famine, then the aid workers will be less exposed to danger like those faced in war zones. However, it is not too all correct if one says working out from a war zone is not exposed to risk. Aid workers that are deployed to disease stricken countries will easily exposed to risks of infectious diseases.

Thus, it is a subjection to the purpose and aims of an aid organization that will determine how their staffs will be affected. Ultimately, regardless of the risks of different tasks of humanitarian work, it is still the calculated risk and choice undertaken by the aid workers in their endeavor to advance in humanitarian efforts.


External factor

Traditionally, humanitarian workers enjoyed both international legal protection, and “de facto” immunity from attack by belligerent parties. However, when assigned to conflict zones, the humanitarian workers are vulnerable from attacks despite the existence of Geneva Conventions. Based on the research conducted by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) Policy Brief 34 ‘Providing aid in insecure environments: 2009 Update Trends in violence against aid workers and the operational response’, in the 1990s and 2000s, the attacks on humanitarian workers have risen sharply. [10] In 2008 alone, 260 humanitarian workers have been killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in violent attacks, marking the highest toll in a twelve years timeframe.

When humanitarian workers carry out their duties and jobs alike especially in conflict zones, they face a significant high risk by various factors. For such an instance in conflict zones, they face physical threats from violent forces deliberated at them. Based on a research by Humanitarian Policy Group from the findings of the 2006 report ‘Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: Trend in Policy and Operations’. Its analysis follows on from that report, providing global incident data for the last three years. It identifies new trends and highlights issues in the three most violent contexts for aid workers at present: Sudan (Darfur), Afghanistan, and Somalia – accounted for more than 60 percent of violent incidents and aid worker victims. Like the report of 2006, the research was based on the Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD). The AWSD recorded major security incidents affecting the staff of aid organizations working in humanitarian relief, like killings, kidnappings, and attacks that result in serious injury.

The HPG Policy Brief 34 indicates that the attacks on aid workers are increasingly political motivated, such reflects a broad targeting of the aid enterprise as a whole. Based on the latest update by the HPG Policy Brief 34, three countries with the highest incidents of violent attacks on aid workers (in descending order: Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia). Most of the attacks in Sudan are attributed to banditry. And in Afghanistan and Somalia are more of political motivations.

For many incidents of the attacks on humanitarian aid workers, it is difficult to ascertain the true motives behind it. Political motivation is one of the biggest factors as to why aid workers are being targeted. Political motivated attacks increased by 208 percent over the time period analyzed. The HPG took a limited analysis in their report and indicated that many of the incidents that involved attacks against aid workers had significant political elements. Based on the AWSD, the apparent targeting of internationals and the means by which violence is being perpetrated like the emergence of suicide bombings and the use of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and the steep rise in kidnappings which link criminal and political actors. It is possible to conclude that the attacks on aid workers seen during the past 3 years from 2008 are at least partly politically motivated. Reasonable determination of the motives behind the attacks can be deduced from incident reports and the judgment of reporting entities. Incidents were classified as politically motivated based on various combinations of factors like: 1) first hand determinations and evidence cited in the original incident report; 2) explicit statements and claims of responsibility of attack by the perpetrators; 3) tactics employed (e.g. suicide bombings, targeted IEDs and so on); 4) politically/military personnel known to be perpetrators; 5) deliberate violence without aim for economic gain (i.e. aid workers seriously injured in attack without losing anything in value). [11]

The political targeting of aid workers by belligerents can be associative or direct; that is, humanitarian organizations can be targeted because they are labeled as collaborators with the ‘enemy’, like the government, rebel forces or foreign power. For instance in Afghanistan, aid organizations that cooperated with the coalition forces in certain activities like reconstructions can be suggestive that the aid organizations are part of the ‘enemy’. Attackers will use this as a valid reason to deliberate attack aid organizations by associating them with donor countries. [12] This is especially true when armed forces from donor countries are present in the case of U.S. government-funded organizations operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. In such instances, despite the differences in activities, humanitarian organizations are often viewed as providing assistance to the occupying forces and considered to be the enemies.

Aid workers with connections to local governments can also make them vulnerable to attacks. In order to maintain humanitarian efforts, humanitarian staffs need to interact with local authorities to ensure that the government will continue to allow humanitarian presence in their country. For such reasons, humanitarian staffs will attend meetings, functions with local government representatives and state military leaders. These interactions between humanitarian staffs and the government personnel may cause combatant factions to view that the aid organizations are having close political ties with the local government and label the aid organizations as enemies. Thus the combatant factions may attack the aid organizations for providing assistance to the local government as a punishment or to send a stern message to the local authorities to make a more visible political statement.

The Trincomalee Massacre is assumed to be politically motivated. On 4th August 2006, seventeen staffs international NGO Action Contre La Faim (Action against Hunger International, or ACFIN) were executed at their office in Muttur. The killings were assumed to be politically motivated as the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission claimed that the act was carried out by government forces. It was questioned as to why the aid workers were targeted and execute. The guess was if the government forces were really involved, they may have killed the aid workers out of anti-Tamil sentiment since they were perceived as indirectly aiding the Tamil Tigers. Another assumption was the killings were deliberately carried out by the government in order to demonize the rebel group in the eyes of the international community. The motive behind killing of the seventeen ACFIN staffs were vague, however, political consideration was drawn as a palpable factor. [13]

Apart from political motivations, economical resources can be one of the factors combatant factions carry out attacks on aid workers. Attacks can be carried out on the facilities or supply convoys of aid organizations purely to seize humanitarian goods for the attackers’ own usage or selling the goods to fund their war efforts. In the humanitarian relief industry, most humanitarian workers have access to both the basic necessities and luxuries that majority of the local people lack. The humanitarian aid industry is often one of the biggest economic players in the country or region of operation, providing one of the most visible signs of wealth in war-stricken regions in the form of new vehicles, electronics, homes and offices, and the possession of seemingly endless quantities of food, clothing, and money. Therefore, a faction seeking to supply provisions to their fighters attack and rob humanitarian organizations, often injuring or killing aid workers in the process. [14] In Afghanistan, over the past year of 2009, aid workers have increasingly been attacked and harassed in Afghanistan, particularly in the volatile southern provinces. Dozens of people involved in relief work were kidnapped and/or killed in 2008 and large consignments of aid items were pillaged by insurgents and criminal groups. This suggests that the attackers may have wanted to capture the goods for their own use. [15] Other than the method of forcibly seizing humanitarian goods, combatant factions also kidnap aid workers for ransoms to increase their funds. Combatant factions sometimes attack aid organizations to prevent or disrupt the flow of humanitarian aid from reaching civilians seen as the enemy. [16]

Internal factor

Save for the external factors, there are various internal factors that poses high risk to the aid organization itself. The internal management of the aid organizations is also responsible for the safety and security of their own. The policies that aid organizations adopt will sometimes backfire at themselves. For example, the government may outline a new policy that humanitarian efforts are to be carried out in collaboration between the aid organizations and military forces. The reason may be as simple as it will increase the safety of the aid organization and an increase in effectiveness of the humanitarian aid effort. However, by linking themselves close with military forces, the aid organizations may be perceived as enemies by insurgents.

The HPG report in Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: 2009Updates indicates that the surge of violence towards the aid workers maybe be rooted in the policy that aid organizations adopt that makes them appear to have close ties with the government and thus diluting the notion of neutrality that humanitarian organizations upheld since inception. The report also expressed that “the danger of association with certain governments or armed forces has a particular salience with aid workers, most of whom endeavor to be seen as separate and distinct from political actors and activities.” Calling the disassociation between humanitarian groups and political and military actors “sensible and necessary steps”, the report concludes that “If the greater portion of international humanitarian aid organizations were able to achieve independence and project an image of neutrality this would surely enhance operational security and benefit humanitarian action as a whole.” [17]

So long that aid organizations continues to associate themselves with the government or the military, there is always a high tendency that the aid organization will be a target by the insurgents or disgruntled population, and there is a risk that the humanitarian effort will be used as a mask to further facilitate political agendas.

The safety measures that the aid organizations undertake is also another factor as to why the safety of the humanitarian workers was jeopardized. In recent years, many policies and procedures have been formulated and effectuated to increase the level of security and safety of aid workers. The securities measures can be categorized into three main types: acceptance, protection and deterrence. In reality, the measures also poses potential hazard to the aid workers instead of protecting them.

The security measures of protection and deterrence often contain flaws in them. By the word protection itself, this measure is to increase the safety of aid workers by providing them with protective devices and employ field procedures to reduce the risk of aid workers. Equipments like Kevlar vests, ballistic helmets, armored vehicles and convoys, housing the aid workers in a protective environment, and engaging the local people to carry out the aid jobs are the common ways to keep the aid workers out of harm’s way. When the situation becomes too dangerous to work in, international staffs are often evacuated and leaving the local staffs to fend for themselves. This protection measure may offer suffice protection for international staffs but the local staffs are the ones who will ultimately suffer when the protection cease to exist when resources are taken away. Deterrence is one strategy that aid organizations employ to counter the threats pose by potential attackers. The hiring of mercenaries and security details equipped with weapons to protect aid workers and properties are the common deterrence strategy implemented to increase overall security of aid workers. Often, by engaging armed personnel for protections, again such action will be perceived by insurgents as affiliation to the military or government. Thus creating a dilution of independence and neutrality of aid organizations and making them potential targets to insurgents. [18]

A real life example is portrayed in Iraq and Afghanistan, where some U.S. based NGO’s received protection from U.S. military forces while the military utilize this opportunity to improve their image by working with aid organizations. However, this collaboration by neutral NGOs with the military is viewed as enemies by many local citizens. Civil-military linkage only undermines filed workers long-term safety as they are increasingly associated with the occupying forces. [19]


a) Protection under International Humanitarian Law.

Protection under International Humanitarian Law for the humanitarian aid workers only can be apply when a situation can be qualified as armed conflict. An armed conflict can be defined as a situation where fighting take place between the armed forces between the two states this consider as international armed conflict or within the territory of a state between its regular armed forces and organized armed forces or when such group fight one another in internal state. [20]

In situations of armed conflict, humanitarian workers should be aware of and respect a number of rules so as not to jeopardize the protection that they could be enjoy under International Humanitarian Law. Obviously, they must not take part in the hostilities and on the other hand they should always refrain from committing any act that could be construed as hostile towards one party to the conflict. Humanitarian workers should also keep in mind what constitutes a lawful military objective according to International Humanitarian Law. Objects or places which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action could become a military target. Whenever possible, members of humanitarian organizations should stay clear of such objects and places. [21]

Under International Humanitarian Law, the protection to the humanitarian organization is based on the principle, ‘within the context of hostilities a distinction must always be made between combatants and civilians.’ Under International Humanitarian Law, it was stated that humanitarian workers are considered to be civilians. [22] They must be respected and protected in all circumstances, and must never be made the object of attack in whatever reason at all.

The provisions for the protection of humanitarian personnel who are involved in relief operations such as under Articles 69, 70 and 71 of Additional Protocol I and 18 of Additional Protocol II stated under a number of conditions, relief operations that are humanitarian and impartial in character and are conducted without any adverse distinction may be undertaken. It also offers of assistance fulfilling these conditions shall not be regarded either as interference in the armed conflict or as hostile acts. In further, International Humanitarian Law also contains provisions for the protection of medical personnel and transports. This protection, which also applies to military medical units and transports, is represented visually by the Red Cross or Red Crescent emblem. However, it must be noted that in principle most humanitarian organizations which are not part of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are not entitled to use that emblem. [23]

However the most effective preventive measures must be taken by States to limit any risk to the security of humanitarian workers. They must suppress breaches of international law and prosecute those responsible of war crimes. Any intentional attack against members of a humanitarian organization would constitute a war crime. War crimes can also be prosecuted in another country on the basis of universal jurisdiction.

b) Protection under Geneva Convention.

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols are part of the international humanitarian law where a whole system of legal safeguards that cover the way wars may be fought and the protection of individuals. They specifically protect people who do not take part in the fighting such as civilians, medics, chaplains, aid workers and those who can no longer fight including wounded, sick and shipwrecked troops and the prisoners of war. The fundamental aim already of the historic original Geneva Convention of 1864, was to ensure acceptance of the neutral status of the sick and wounded and of military medical personnel, who needed to enjoy special protection if they were to be able to carry out their mission.

It also reaffirmed and considerably developed this immunity by extending it to medical personnel and unit as well as military and civilian medical transports. The protection provided by these instruments is represented visually by the red cross/red crescent emblem, which strengthens its legal basis. To take account of developments in armed conflicts, Additional Protocol I which also gave States the option of identifying medical units and transports by distinctive signals, such as light signals or electronic means of identification. [24]

In order to limit as far as possible misuses of the red cross/red crescent emblem, which are likely to impair its protective effect in the event of armed conflict, its use is subject to some very strict regulations. Thus, the emblem can be displayed only with the permission of the relevant authorities and under their control. It is essential for States to enact national legislation on the use and protection of the red cross/red crescent emblem, providing, in particular, for an effective monitoring system and punishment for grave misuse of it. The main users of the emblem are medical and religious personnel, the medical services of the armed forces and civilian medical units and transports, such as hospitals and ambulances. [25]

Under the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies and other relief societies duly recognized and authorized by their government may provide the medical services of the armed forces with personnel and equipment, which will then be subject to military laws and regulations. Ambulances and first-aid posts may display the emblem in peacetime, under certain conditions (Articles 26, 27 and 38 to 44 of the First Geneva Convention, Articles 41 to 45 of the Second Geneva Convention, Articles 18 to 22 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Articles 8, 9 and 18 of Additional Protocol I and Article 12 of Additional Protocol II). [26]

In addition, the components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement have a special tie to the emblem. The National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies may use it at any time to indicate the affiliation of their personnel, installations and equipment. They may also use it for protective purposes when serving as auxiliaries to armed forces medical services or when working under the auspices of the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross). As regards the ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, they may display the emblem at any time and for all their activities. [27]

However should be reminds concerning the special role which the ICRC is called upon to play in armed conflicts. The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols expressly confer certain rights on the ICRC, such as that of acting as a substitute for Protecting Powers and that of access to prisoners of war and persons protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention (Articles 123 of the Third and 143 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions). [28] In addition, the Geneva Conventions give it the right to offer its services to the parties to the conflict. Generally speaking, the ICRC acts as the promoter and guardian of international humanitarian law, and in this capacity it works to ensure respect for this law, as well as its promotion, dissemination and development. In armed conflicts or other situations requiring the intervention of a specifically neutral and independent institution, the ICRC assumes the overall guidance of international Red Cross.

Last but not least, another category of personnel is entitled to be respected and protected under international humanitarian law such as civil defence staff, which has their own sign, a blue triangle against an orange background.

c) Protection under Customary International Law.

The regulation of humanitarian assistance in non-international armed is also covered by customary international law. Specifically, the obligation to respect and protect humanitarian relief personnel and objects, and the obligation to allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief which is impartial in character and conducted without any adverse distinction (subject to the state’s right of control) are regarded by the ICRC as rules of customar

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International law, also known as public international law and the law of nations, is the set of rules, norms, and standards generally accepted in relations between nations. International law is studied as a distinctive part of the general structure of international relations.

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