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MEMO/11/558

Brussels, 18 August 2011

World Humanitarian Day: Europe's support to humanitarian work

There are more than half a million aid workers in the world today, counting both relief and development personnel. The last detailed assessment of the sector, carried out in 2008, placed the number of humanitarians at 595,000 (including international and national employees of UN humanitarian agencies, international non-governmental organisations and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent family).   

Space for helping humanity

To be able to deliver assistance, humanitarian workers need access to those in need. Access can be hard to get in the aftermath of a natural disaster or in the midst of armed conflict. Security is one of the greatest problems faced by the humanitarian community, which struggles with new and increasingly complex restrictions on the humanitarian space.

The conditions in which humanitarian workers operate are growing more dangerous every year. Humanitarian emblems and flags which traditionally provided a shield for humanitarian workers are now turning them into targets.

According to the United Nations, attacks on humanitarian posts have tripled in the last decade. In 2010 there have been 129 security incidents targeting humanitarian workers; 69 of them were killed, 86 were injured and 87 were kidnapped. In conflict zones, local staff are at even higher risk than international humanitarian workers.

Recent examples of attacks on humanitarian workers

Attackers armed with grenades bombed the premises of an international non-governmental relief organisation in north-west Pakistan in March 2010, killing seven aid workers and injuring five. The humanitarian group was helping survivors of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake in the Mansehra district.

Ten medical relief workers were killed in Afghanistan in August 2010, while on their way to bring aid to remote villages. Among them was Tom Little, a 61-year-old American doctor who had spent more than 40 years providing medical aid in Afghanistan. Victim of the same attack was 36-year-old British doctor Karen Woo and 35-year-old German translator Daniela Beyer. A month later Scottish aid worker Linda Norgrove was kidnapped in Afghanistan. She was killed in October 2010 during a failed rescue attempt.

Darfur is one of the most dangerous places for humanitarian workers. Three Bulgarian pilots were kidnapped in Darfur in January while working for a contractor of the UN Humanitarian Aid Service. Capitain Branko Chorbadjiiski, Alexander Dimitrov and Veselin Manolov were released in June, after 145 days in captivity.

Three French aid workers were kidnapped in Yemen in May 2011, while on a humanitarian mission for French non-governmental organisation Triangle Generation Humanitaire. The two women and one man are still in captivity.

Respect for International humanitarian law: the solution supported by the European Union

Humanitarian workers do not take sides – they work to make possible and improve the lives of people in need regardless of their political or other leanings. The growing incidence of attacks against humanitarians is not only tragic loss of human life but also a factor undermining the effectiveness of humanitarian aid.

In armed conflicts, attacks against humanitarian personnel represent a violation of International Humanitarian Law. To help solve this problem, the European Union vigorously promotes compliance with International Humanitarian Law.

One of the EU's tools to this end is The European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid, which was adopted at the end of 2007. It affirms EU commitment to upholding and promoting the fundamental humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. It also commits the EU to advocating strongly and consistently for the respect of International Law, including International Humanitarian Law.

In 2010 the Commission launched the mid-term review of how the European Consensus and its Action Plan are implemented. This review, done in collaboration with numerous humanitarian partners, reaffirmed the key importance of strong advocacy for the humanitarian principles and law and encouraged the EU to continue its efforts in this regard.

Another operational tool for bolstering the respect of International Humanitarian Law are the Guidelines on promoting compliance with International Humanitarian Law. These were issued by the European Union in 2005 and were updated by the European Council in 2009, when the EU heads of state and government reaffirmed their strong support for the promotion and respect of International Humanitarian Law.

In line with the 2005 EU guidelines on promoting compliance with IHL, the EU has pledged to pursue its efforts in promoting the dissemination and training of IHL, in particular to military and civilian personnel involved in EU crisis management operations, It has also pledged to pursue the promotion of the integration of IHL into education systems, which many Member States have already incorporated into their educational systems.

Training in international humanitarian law, comprising both theoretical training and practical exercises, forms an integral part of the training programmes for members of the armed services and police forces as well as for military and police participants in international peacekeeping and crisis management operations in the Member States. Furthermore, the EU Member States work closely with national Red Cross societies to promote awareness of international humanitarian law, and in many cases provide financial support to national societies.

Ensuring respect for International Humanitarian Law, to protect the humanitarian space, to secure access to those in need and to strengthen the security of aid workers is a major policy priority for the EU and its humanitarian partners. This is why the Commission actively supports the activities of organisations such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) aimed to reinforce the safety and security of humanitarian personnel.


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