Attacks on humanitarian workers

Attacks on humanitarian workers

Humanitarian aid workers belonging to United Nations organisations, PVOs / NGOs or the Red Cross / Red Crescent have traditionally enjoyed both international legal protection, and de facto immunity from attack by belligerent parties. However, attacks on humanitarian workers have occasionally occurred, and became more frequent in the 1990s and 2000s. This is attributed to a number of factors, including the increasing number of humanitarian workers deployed, the increasingly unstable environments in which they work, and the erosion of the perception of neutrality and independence[citation needed]. ICRC promotes a framework for Neutral Independent Humanitarian Action (NIHA) to enable differentiated role understanding.


Legal basis for protection of humanitarian workers

The legal basis for protection of humanitarian workers in conflicts is contained in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the related Protocol of 1977. These treaties describe the category of civilian non-combatant and outline the rights and obligations of non-combatants during conflict. These rights include the right to be treated humanely; to have access to food, water, shelter, medical treatment, and communications; to be free from violence to life and person, hostage taking, and humiliating or degrading treatment; and the prohibition against collective punishment or imprisonment. Civilian non-combatants include local citizens and nationals of countries that are not party to the conflict.

While the Geneva Conventions guarantee protection for humanitarian workers, they do not guarantee access of humanitarian workers to affected areas: governments or occupying forces may, if they wish, ban a relief agency from working in their area. Médecins Sans Frontières was created in 1971 with the express purpose of ignoring this restriction, by providing assistance to populations affected by the Biafran civil war despite the prohibitions of the government of Nigeria.

In addition, the Geneva Conventions do not require that parties to the conflict guarantee the safety of humanitarian workers. The Conventions prohibit combatants from attacking non-combatants, and they require occupying forces to maintain general order. However, the Conventions do not require that combating parties provide security escorts, for example, when other factions threaten the safety of non-combatants operating in their area.

In 2003, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1502 giving greater protection to humanitarian workers and treating attacks on them as a war crime.


The method of targeting foreigners through suicide bombings, IEDs and kidnappings (often closely associated with criminal and political actors) are strong evidence of at least some political motivations against aid workers.[1] It is very hard often to precisely ascertain a motive; for instance, in 55% of the incidents recorded by the AWSD in 2008, the motive was described as ‘undetermined’.[1] However, of those that were determined, political motivations have increased (29% of the determined total in 2003 to 49% in 2008) relative to economic motivations, or when the victim’s status as an aid worker was only incidental.[1] Afghanistan, as one of the most dangerous countries for humanitarian workers to operate in is influential in this changing dynamic; in 2007 61% of incidents were carried out by criminals and 39% by political opposition groups, but in 2008, 65% of incidents were the work of armed opposition groups.[1]

Aid workers can be targeted for political reasons both directly and by association.[1] Sometimes the humanitarian organisation may be targeted for something that it has done or a statement in has made, or simply for the delivery of aid to a population, to whom others do not wish aid to reach.[1] It can also be targeted as a result of being associated as an entity collaborating with the 'enemy' (a government, rebel group or foreign power).[1] The dangers of being associated with specific governments or armed forces has further increased the determination of aid workers to be seen as separate, independent and neutral politically.[1] However, evidence shows that this has little impact and instead that western aid agencies are perceived as a intrinsic part of the western 'agenda' and not merely associated with it.[1] In the case of Afghanistan, with the notable exception of the International Committee of the Red Cross, locals no longer make distinctions (as they once did) between organisations, e.g. those were working with the coalition force’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams and those that did not.[1] In remote areas, they sometimes represent the only accessible western target.[1]

Trends in risks faced by humanitarian workers

  • Wars between states became much less common in the period following the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, these wars have been largely replaced by an increased incidence of internal conflict and resulting violence and miscommunication, increasing the risk to civilians and humanitarian workers alike.
  • Between 1985 and 1998 slightly less than 50% of all humanitarian worker deaths came from workers in UN programs. 25% of these deaths were UN peacekeepers.
  • Between 2006-2008 Sudan (Darfur), Afghanistan and Somalia – accounted for more than 60% of violent incidents and aid worker victims.[1]
  • Most deaths of aid workers are due to deliberate violence.
  • One third of deaths occur in the first three months of deployment, with 17% occurring within the first 30 days.

Source: Sheik, Gutierrez, et al., British Medical Journal 2000;321:166–8

  • Since 2006, violence is once again on the increase and growth in the number of incidents is faster than the growth in the number of humanitarian aid workers.[1]
  • Kidnapping in particular is on the rise, with a 350% increase between 2006 and 2008.[1]

Countries with the highest number of aid workers killed (1997–2003)

  1. Angola: 58 (mostly as a result of anti-aircraft attacks on two UN planes by UNITA in 1998 and 1999 and by landmines)
  2. Afghanistan: 36
  3. Iraq: 32
  4. Sudan: 29
  5. Democratic Republic of the Congo: 18
  6. Rwanda: 17
  7. Somalia: 16
  8. Burundi: 11
  9. Palestinian Authority: 7
  10. Uganda: 7
  11. Serbia and Montenegro (Kosovo): 5
  12. Liberia: 5

Countries with the highest number of incidents of major violence (2006-2008)

According to the Overseas Development Institute's researchers methods of calculating incidents[1]:

  1. Sudan: 93
  2. Afghanistan: 77
  3. Somalia: 68
  4. Sri Lanka: 20
  5. Chad: 13
  6. Iraq: 12
  7. Pakistan: 12

List of recent attacks on humanitarian workers


  • Somalia – January 2, 1993 - A gunman killed Sean Devreaux, 28, a British worker for Unicef in Kismayu.[2]
  • Somalia – February 22, 1993 - Gunmen killed Valerie Place, 23, an Irish nurse with the charity Concern.[3]
  • Bosnia – July 5, 1993 – Scottish aid worker Christine Witcutt shot by a sniper in Sarajevo.[4][5]
  • Bosnia – October 25, 1993 – Danish aid worker Bjarne Vium Nielsen Danish killed in attack on humanitarian aid convoy.[6][7]


  • Burundi – June 4, 1996 – Three ICRC delegates were killed in an attack on two vehicles on the road between the villages of Rugombo and Mugina in the northern province of Cibitoke, resulting in a withdrawal of ICRC from Burundi.[8]
  • Novye Atagi, Chechnya – December 17, 1996 – Six ICRC workers are killed in an attack onto the local hospital. As a result ICRC withdraws all expatriate staff from Chechnya.
  • Guatemala, 1996 – One Costa Rican Salvation Army officer is attacked by demobilized guerrilla members while transporting a senior citizen with a broken leg to the hospital. The vehicle was taken.


  • Somaliland region of Somalia – November 23, 1997 – UN negotiates with clan elders for release of five kidnapped aid workers.
  • Mogadishu, Somalia – November 26, 1997 – All foreign aid workers withdraw from the city following the abduction of two Italian aid workers.
  • Guatemala – 1997 – When returning from mission, one Costa Rican Salvation Army officer was hijacked by gunmen and held hostage for a short time. The vehicle was taken.


  • Somalia – April 21, 1998 – 10 aid workers held hostage.
  • Bujumbura, Burundi – June 10, 1998 – One Danish aid worker killed by car thieves in capital.
  • Central Sudan – June 10, 1998 – Three Sudanese UN staff killed and three wounded when gunmen fire on a UN vehicle.
  • Arua, (North West) Rwanda – July 10, 1998 – Ugandan driver for UN World Food Programme (WFP) killed by rebels.
  • Bujumbura, Burundi – July 24, 1998 – One Italian World Food Programme (WFP) staff member killed in the capital.
  • Congo-Brazzaville – November, 1998 – Major Eugene Nsingani The Salvation Army on a peace mission with eight people, gunned down and killed along with five more.


  • South Sudan – January 4, 1999 – Four ICRC staff killed by SPLA (abducted in February, murdered in April).
  • Southern, Somalia – January 27, 1999 – One Kenyan aid worker killed by gunmen.
  • Lesotho – February 4, 1999 – Irish aid worker (Ken Hickley) robbed and murdered.
  • Bundibugyo, Uganda – April 23, 1999 – Many aid workers flee area to avoid attacks by Allied Democratic Forces.
  • Belgrade, Serbia – May 26, 1999 – Three aid workers put on trial for spying.
  • Angola – June 15, 1999 – Two aid workers killed when gunmen ambush and rob them.
  • Tajikistan – October 2 – French aid worker killed.
  • Northern Kosovo – November 15, 1999 – 24 people on board a WFP aid flight died when it crashed.


  • Balad, Somalia – January 3, 2000 – One local CARE staff shot dead in an ambush.
  • North of Mogadishu, Somalia – January 4, 2000 – One CARE worker shot dead in an ambush.
  • Sudan – January 9, 2000 – 2 CARE staff killed and 2 missing after an ambush.
  • Somalia – January 31, 2000 – Attacks on a convoy of aid vehicles leave 20 people dead.
  • Ethiopia – February 9, 2000 – A medical organisation suspends operations in part of Ethiopia after the killing of a staff member.
  • Ambon, Indonesia – May 22, 2000 – Foreign aid workers pulled out of Ambon to escape growing inter-communal violence.
  • Sierra Leone – June 19, 2000 – One British aid worker (Alan Smith) freed after being held for one month by rebels.
  • Baghdad, Iraq – June 28, 2000 – Two FAO workers shot and killed.
  • South Sudan – August 6, 2000 – Eight aid workers killed in Sudan when vehicle was attacked near the border with Uganda.
  • Atambua, Belu District, West Timor, Indonesia – September 6, 2000 – Five UNHCR staff members, Mr Samson Aregahegn (Supply Officer); Mr Carlos Caceres-Collazo (Protection Officer); and Mr Pero Simundza (Telecommunications Operator) and two Indonesians were killed when their office was attacked by militia.
  • Macenta, Guinea – September 17, 2000 – The death of one UNHCR staff member and the abduction of another.
  • Southern border Guinea – December 7, 2000 – Hundreds of people are left dead as rebels destroy the UNHCR centre.
  • Afghanistan – December 9, 2000 – Seven people working for UN mine clearance programme killed in ambush.
  • Aceh, Indonesia – December 10, 2000 – Three aid workers killed.
  • Burundi – December 30, 2000 – A British voluntary worker is one of 20 people killed by gunmen.


  • Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo – February 27, 2001 – Six Red Cross staff killed.
  • Mogadishu, Somalia – March 27, 2001 – MSF compound attacked by gunmen.
  • Alkhan-Kala, Chechnya – April 18, 2001 – Viktor Popkov fatally wounded and two others injured in a shooting attack.
  • Tajikistan, – June 16, 2001 – Kidnappers ask for release of detained militants after taking a group of aid workers hostage.
  • Banda Aceh, Indonesia – October 4, 2001 – Three more people, including a Red Cross worker who had been tortured were killed.
  • Afghanistan – November 15, 2001 – Eight western aid workers released after three months captivity by Taliban.


  • Mogadishu, Somalia – February 23, 2002 – A Swiss woman who ran a small aid agency was shot dead.
  • Mogadishu, Somalia – February 28, 2002 – One Somali UN worker kidnapped hours after region declared too dangerous for permanent UN presence.


  • Gaza Strip – March 16, 2003 – Rachel Corrie an American member of ISM was killed by an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) bulldozer when attempting to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian's home.
  • Baghdad, Iraq – August 19, 2003 – The bombing of the UN Headquarters at the Canal Hotel killed at least 24 people and wounded over 100.
  • Baghdad, Iraq – October 27, 2003 – An attack on the ICRC building kills at least 12 people.
  • Ghazni, eastern Afghanistan – November 16, 2003 – UNHCR staff person Bettina Goislard was shot dead by motorcycle-borne gunman while travelling by car.
  • Kandahar, southern Afghanistan – March 24, 2003 – ICRC Staff member Ricardo Munguia shot and killed in ambush north of Kandahar City.


  • Kabul, Afghanistan – February 26, 2004 – Five Afghans working for the Sanayee Development Foundation were killed when their vehicle was ambushed northeast of Kabul.
  • Mosul, Iraq – March 15, 2004 – Larry Elliott, Jean Dover Elliott, Karen Denise Watson, and David McDonnall were killed in a drive-by shooting. They were US missionaries for Southern Baptist International Mission Board.
  • Kabul, Afghanistan – April 28, 2004 – Two Afghan aid workers and a soldier were killed in an attack in the Panjwayi district of southern Kandahar city.
  • Badghis province, Afghanistan – June 2, 2004 – Five staff working for Médecins Sans Frontières were killed on the road between Khairkhana and Qala i Naw, resulting in the complete withdrawal of MSF from Afghanistan. The names of the murdered staff were: Hélène de Beir, Willem Kwint, Egil Tynaes, Fasil Ahmad and Besmillah.
  • Darfur, Sudan – October 10, 2004 – A Save the Children vehicle was hit by an anti-tank landmine in the Um Barro area of North Darfur, Sudan. Two members of staff travelling in the vehicle were killed, Rafe Bullick (British, Programme Manager, North Darfur) and Nourredine Issa Tayeb (Sudanese, Water Engineer).


  • Baghdad, Iraq – April 16, 2005 – Marla Ruzicka and her Iraqi translator, Faiz Ali Salim, were killed by a suicide car bombing on Airport Road in Baghdad.
  • South Sudan/Uganda, – November 5, 2005 – Collin Lee who worked for International Aid Services died when his jeep, containing his wife and driver, was ambushed by the LRA in South Sudan.


  • Vavuniya, Sri Lanka – May 15 – An employee of the Norwegian Refugee Council is shot dead on his way back from work.
  • Muttur, Sri Lanka – August 4 or August 5–17 workers from the aid group Action Against Hunger were found murdered on August 6 in northeastern Sri Lanka. They were working on post-2004 tsunami reconstruction. There had been fierce fighting the area for more than a week. (See Muttur massacre.)


  • Colombo, Sri Lanka – June 3 , 2007 – Two Red cross workers were abducted and murdered in Sri Lanka.
  • El Bared refugee camp, Lebanon – June 11, 2007 – Two Lebanese Red Cross workers were killed and a third wounded.[1]
  • Darfur – between 1 January 2006 and 31 August 2007 – A total of 12 humanitarian workers were killed, including four working for the Government's water project.
  • Central African Republic – July – An MSF volunteer logistician was killed by gunfire while trying to assess the need for humanitarian aid in the country.
  • Somalia – December – Two nurses, one Argentine and the other one Spanish, were abducted. After one week, they were released.
  • Burundi – On Saturday June 23, 2007 Burundi security forces shot dead Vladimir Rushtiko, a Russian diplomat after he drove through a checkpoint
  • Burundi – On Monday, December 31, 2007, at 6:30 pm, an Action Against Hunger vehicle was targeted by shooters in the city of Ruygi in the East of Burundi. Five people, including three female expatriate staff of Action Against Hunger, were inside the targeted vehicle. One of them, a French psychologist of Action Against Hunger, died upon arrival at the hospital in Gitega as a results of her injuries. The second victim suffered a gunshot wound and underwent surgery in Gitega. The third Action Against Hunger expatriate escaped uninjured from the shooting.
  • Algeria – 11 December 2007, 10 United Nations staff died in a double car bombing in the Algerian capital, Algiers, which killed at least 26 people and injured 177.


  • Kabul, Afghanistan – January 14 – Six people, including at least one aid worker from the USA, was killed in an attack on the Serena Hotel.
  • Kandahar, Afghanistan – January 26 – An aid worker and her Afghan driver were kidnapped in Kandahar and are presumed dead.
  • Kismayo, Somalia – January 28 – Three Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff were killed as they were on their way back from the hospital to the compound.
  • Colombo, Sri Lanka – May 16 – An Batticaloa-based employee of the Norwegian Refugee Council is abducted while visiting the capital and disappears, presumed dead.
  • Arusha, Tanzania – June 30 – An Australian working with the Australian not-for-profit organisation foodwatershelter was killed during a robbery.
  • Logar Province, Afghanistan – August 13 – Three female International Rescue Committee (IRC) workers and their local driver were killed in an ambush as they drove back to Kabul.
  • Merka, Somalia – October 17 – A senior programme assistant for the World Food Programme (WFP) was shot and killed as he left a mosque.
  • Kabul, Afghanistan – October 20 – An aid worker with SERVE Afghanistan was killed as she walked to work.
  • Gurilel, Somalia – October 25 – A local worker with the aid agency Iida was killed as she returned from work.


  • Several aid workers were kidnapped while in northern Yemen.[9]
  • Two Chechen aid workers were kidnapped and murdered in Chechnya.[10]
  • An Irish charity worker was killed during a mugging in Zanzibar.[11]
  • Pakistan – 5 October 2009 3 United Nations staff killed in a suicide bombing attack against the office of the World Food Programme in the capital city Islamabad.
  • Afghanistan - 28 October 2009 5 United Nations staff, two Afghan security personnel, and an Afghan civilian were killed by three Taliban attackers in an assault on the Bekhtar Guesthouse in Kabul. Nine other UN staff, also there working for the presidential election, were wounded. The attackers used AK-47s, grenades, and suicide vests.[12]


  • Afghanistan: On 7 August 2010, 10 men and women working for a Christian aid agency were murdered by Taliban. Two Afghan interpreters, six Americans, a British woman and a German woman who had been running an eye clinic in the country died of gunshot wounds. Sabjullah Mujaheed, a Taliban spokesman, said later that they had been killed because they were missionaries and spies for the United States.[13]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Abby Stoddard, Adele Harmer and Victoria DiDomenico (2009) Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: Trends in violence against aid workers and the operational response (2009 Update) Overseas Development Institute
  2. ^ Maier, Karl (January 4, 1993). "Unicef quits town after British aid man killed". The Independent (London). 
  3. ^ Mdlongwa, Francis (February 23, 1993). "Somali gunmen murder Irish nurse". The Independent (London). 
  4. ^ The Christine Witcutt Memorial Fund, Christine Witcutt (1941–1993),, retrieved 2009-07-30 
  5. ^ BBC News (September 15, 2001), Centre marks aid worker's memory,, retrieved 2009-07-30 
  6. ^ Timeline for Former Yugoslavia June 1991 to August 1997,, retrieved 2009-07-30 
  7. ^ Toomer, Kevin (2007), worker fatalities/Fatal Incidents Aid Workers DB/Fatal Incidents data.html Aid Worker Fatalities Data, worker fatalities/Fatal Incidents Aid Workers DB/Fatal Incidents data.html, retrieved 2009-07-30 
  8. ^ Christian Jennings, Red Cross / Red Crescent Emblem,, retrieved 2009-07-30 
  9. ^ Yemen Reports Kidnapping of 9 Foreigners
  10. ^ The New York Times – Two Chechen Aid Workers Are Killed
  11. ^ Volunteer aid worker murdered in Zanzibar
  12. ^ "UN chief condemns Kabul killings". BBC News. October 28, 2009. 
  13. ^ [D+C article 10/2010: Acceptance of humanitarian aid agencies no longer self-evident]

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