The recent visit to Somalia by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry deservedly made news as a welcome signal of support for a nation struggling to rebuild itself. But the visit also turned a spotlight on the enormous challenges the Somali people still face to build a more peaceful future — and how dangerous it can be for those providing humanitarian assistance in the country.
They are challenges the humanitarian community knows all too well.
In April, four UNICEF workers were killed and others were injured in northern Somalia, when the van carrying them from their guest house to an office in Garowe was hit by a roadside bomb. Sadly, they are not the first humanitarians to come under attack in Somalia, nor are attacks on humanitarians restricted to Somalia.
Around the world, humanitarian aid workers have been bombed, kidnapped and killed. Their lifesaving supplies have been confiscated and their access to those in need have been blocked.
Indeed, according to the Aid Worker Security Database Project, 2013 set a record for attacks on civilian humanitarian aid workers, with 251 separate attacks affecting 451 aid workers. Over half of these attacks occurred while workers were traveling to reach the families who desperately need their assistance.
This alarming trend is happening just when the need for humanitarian action seems to be growing by the day.
Globally, an estimated 230 million children live in countries and areas affected by armed conflicts. In 2014, as many as 15 million children were caught up in major conflicts — in Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Gaza and the West Bank. Children have been killed in their homes and schools; they have been forced to flee their communities and their countries; their education has been interrupted or never begun; their futures have become mired in uncertainty.
The humanitarian community is doing all it can to reach these children and their families and help them rebuild their lives, their livelihoods and, eventually, their countries. But as we saw in Somalia last month, they must often risk their lives to do so.
By custom and by force of law, humanitarian workers have always been protected in times of conflict, because their singular mission is to bring comfort and aid to the innocent and vulnerable. Can the world afford to tolerate these horrific and inexcusable attacks?
The courageous women and men who dedicate their lives to protecting the lives of others are idealists, but they are also realists. They know that to protect those in danger puts them in danger, too. But they balance those risks against the change they can make in people’s lives, in their time of greatest need — sometimes, in the life of a single child, a child who will either be lost to the cycle of violence and conflict, or who will survive and get the support she or he needs to someday break out of that cycle.
In this way, humanitarian workers don’t only protect those directly affected by conflict. By working to build better, more stable futures for those in dire need, they can help change the conditions that can give rise to conflicts. Simply put, the responsibility to protect the protectors is not only a moral obligation — it makes enormous strategic sense, too. Attacks on them are attacks on us all.
We must never accept a world in which humanitarian aid workers can be attacked and killed with impunity.
Those with the power and the responsibility must renew that most basic principle: to protect those who protect others. For they are the bright lights in an often dark world. And every time one is killed or harmed, humanity dims a little.
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