Policy and practice: developments around aid agency security
by Koenraad Van Brabant February 1998

Over the last few years a number of aid workers and human rights monitors have been killed or kidnapped during the course of their work – we call to mind the death of an agency staff member in a hostage release action in Tajikistan in late 1997, and the abduction of the UNHCR representative in North Ossetia in late January 1998. The feeling that aid agencies are increasingly becoming a target is putting the security of aid personnel high on the agenda.

Statistics available from both the ICRC and the UN indicate a serious increase since the early nineties in the number of incidents in which the physical integrity of aid personnel is threatened. The highest number of fatalities among UN staff has been among national recruits, but internationally recruited staff is at greater (statistical) risk of being kidnapped. Importantly, the ICRC analysis of security incidents reveals an increase to some 50% in the number of incidents that are interpreted as crime and banditry.

Simultaneously a number of aid agencies are facing court cases with claims for compensation from maimed personnel or the relatives of deceased aid workers. Some have denied responsibility on the grounds that aid workers failed to follow security guidelines. Where war insurance cover had been taken out, it often transpired that the cover was inadequate (see RRN Newsletter 7).

There remains a tendency among many aid agency managers to deny the reality of security risks. Classified explicitly as ‘tragic incidents’ or implicitly as an ‘occupational hazard’, no questions are raised about how professionally the agency manages security, and to what degree the agency itself may have contributed to threats arising or their impact being more tragic than should have been the case. Many security guidelines on the ground remain deficient (see RRN Newsletter 7). More security manuals for aid agencies are being produced, but a common weakness remains the inability to analyse threats and to develop a combination of security-enhancing strategies that are an appropriate response to different types of threat. Some aid agencies have sought help and advice from ex-military personnel, usually with rather mixed results. In the US, for example, there has been a strong interest from the military in putting themselves forward as ‘security experts’.

One of the challenges is to consider different security-enhancing strategies and to produce from them a proper management tool. Essentially these challenges are: removing or reducing the threat by gaining increased acceptance; reducing the vulnerability of the aid agency with protective devices and protective procedures, or deterring the threat with a counterthreat, i.e. the use of armed protection by or for aid agencies.

The question of armed protection and of the role of UN peace-support troops in that regard remains controversial and in need of policy clarification. The Red Cross movement has been clarifying the conditions and purposes for which armed protection may be necessary (crime and banditry). The movement remains very weary however of ‘military humanitarianism’, an association it sees in the long run as increasing rather than decreasing risk. The UN also recognises that armed protection may be required. There is a tendency to use private security service companies which provide armed guards and which are fully insured and properly licensed. This solution conforms with a global trend towards a privatisation of violence.

Awareness-raising and policy development

The security of aid personnel was one prominent theme at the June 1997 Wolfsberg Humanitarian Forum that was organised by the ICRC and that brought together senior humanitarian and political players. [1] In December 1997, the ICRC in Geneva also organised a one-day seminar on security for NGOs. The Swiss government in January 1998 convened the First Periodical Meeting of States Party to the Geneva Conventions on the General Problems of the Application of International Humanitarian Law, which brought together 133 States and 36 observers. One of the two general topics concerned the respect for and protection of the personnel of humanitarian organisations. [2] The meeting mainly increased awareness of the problem and the States generally insisted on the conduct expected of humanitarian personnel. For their own protection, it was necessary for them to adhere to the principles of humanitarian action and, particularly, to the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief (see RRN Network Paper 7).

An option that received marked support was to have organisations comply with certain criteria in respect of ethics and indeed efficiency, to make public financing subject to adherence to the Code, and even to establish a system of accreditation for the organisations. Also emphasised was the need for greater coordination, not only between humanitarian agencies, but above all between humanitarian and political organisations, such as the UN Security Council. On the other hand, some delegations stressed the primary responsibility of the States in ensuring the protection of humanitarian aid personnel. A number of cases exist where the whereabouts of suspected murderers of aid personnel are known, yet no action appears to be taken (see RRN Newsletter 9).

Following an informal consultation with some agency representatives (see RRN Newsletter 8), ECHO has developed a working document Security of Relief Workers and Humanitarian Space. This will serve as a background to a communication [3] from the Commission to the Development Council of the EU. ECHO, jointly with the ICRC, are also organising a conference in Lisbon in March on Humanitarian Action: Perception and Security. The conference will consider humanitarian action in relation to modern warfare, political factors and the media, but also the principles of humanitarian action and the issue of armed protection.

Information-collection and analysis

There are currently no statistics available showing security incidents affecting NGOs, and NGOs generally appear slow in responding to altered working conditions on the ground. In the USA, a number of concerned aid workers have started the International Committee for the Protection of Aid Workers (ICPAW, see RRN Newsletter 9), while in Europe a few NGOs are taking a similar initiative under the umbrella of VOICE (see article on page 17). This should provide an opportunity for lesson learning from incident analysis. Either will have to make a strategic decision whether or not to engage in public advocacy over recent security incidents.

Legal protection

Two major instruments for the legal protection of humanitarian personnel are the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention on the Safety of UN and Associated Personnel. A debate exists as to whether attacks on humanitarian personnel could be considered as war crimes or grave breaches of international humanitarian law, and whether they therefore come under the remit of the International Criminal Tribunal. A diplomatic conference is scheduled in Rome between 15 June and 16 July 1998 to agree on the status of such tribunal.

Institutionalising responsibility

A number of aid agencies have clarified their security management structure, and build-up capacity. Both the ICRC and the UN leave most of the security management to the country delegation, but also have a dedicated capacity at headquarters. For the UN as a whole, this is the office of the Security Coordinator (UNSECOORD) in New York – both have recently strengthened their capacity. Other agencies, such as the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and UNHCR, also have dedicated security officers. The picture among NGOs is mixed, but generally, few appear to have staff dedicated full-time to security.


However, a more professional management of security requires training, skill development, drill and staff discipline. This remains an area in need of strengthening. UNHCR is the UN agency with most staff in dangerous situations. The agency is running training courses, but probably not fast enough to cover its many staff within a reasonable time span. RedR in the UK has been offering two-day training courses on security and communication for almost two years now. In January 1998, InterAction, the umbrella organisation of US PVOs, with OFDA support, ran a pilot course for NGOs on the training of trainers on security. [4] The pilot revealed that it is unrealistic to try and train people on security and as trainers in a mere five days. It revealed areas in which the curriculum should be strengthened. The strength of the pilot course lay in its comprehensive approach to security, including, among the more traditional topics of mine awareness and telecommunications, threat assessment, different security strategies and inter-personal anger defusing skills. A proposal is being put together to build on the experience. A modular training workbook could usefully be developed from the materials already produced, while future training courses should preferably be organised closer to the field.

These various initiatives are clearly complementary. Perhaps a multi-agency network and collaborative effort is now needed, to exchange experiences in the management of security, to develop the analysis of trends, threats and contributing causes, to develop standards for agency policy on security (a point made in the People in Aid Code of Best Practice in the Management and Support of Aid Personnel, RRN Network Paper 20), to advocate for broader legal protection and around policies of donors and political authorities, and to more clearly articulate their needs and views with regard to war insurance coverage.

Thanks to Philippe Dind, Toni Pfanner and Richard Manlove for their input.


[1] Obtainable from Mme. A. Cusinay at the ICRC

[2] ICRC Preparatory Document for the first periodical meeting. Oct. 97; the Swiss government will report on the periodical meeting at the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

[3] Both the background paper and the communication will be available from ECHO information and on the ECHO Website

[4] For more information:
Jane Swan
fax 1 (202) 667 8236
email jswan@interaction.org