UNHCR and International Committee of the Red Cross say security of humanitarian operations under threat

Press Releases, 22 June 1998

Top officials from the Geneva-based United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) today said that humanitarian operations in many parts of the world are facing unacceptable security risks. The two agencies assembled their top aides in Geneva to discuss how to provide a more secure environment for humanitarian operations.

The risks to the work of UNHCR and the ICRC stem from the changed nature of armed conflict today, and especially from the proliferation of undisciplined armed groups. Many humanitarian operations are taking place in areas where law and order has entirely broken down, and organised crime and banditry threaten relief efforts. Aid workers are at particular risk when they are perceived as embarrassing witnesses of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

The result is a threat both to the integrity of humanitarian operations and to the aid workers themselves. "Unfortunately, the people who brave danger and hardship trying to help others, more and more frequently become victims of violence themselves. There must be a limit to how much we can take," said Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The past few years have seen a sharp increase in attacks against humanitarian workers throughout the world, as they more and more often operate alongside victims in war zones or areas where law and order has broken down.

As a result, UNHCR and the ICRC have stepped up security procedures in the field and watch carefully for signs of stress and trauma among their field staff.

Earlier this month, during a conference on the establishment of an International Criminal Court in Rome, UNHCR, outraged by attacks against aid workers, called for such acts of violence to be included in the Court's jurisdiction.

ICRC President Cornelio Sommaruga insisted on the urgent need to strengthen the respect for international humanitarian law. "Particularly the civilian population is now often the target of military operations," he said, "This is unacceptable. The community of states has to see to it that the pertinent provisions of the Geneva Conventions are better respected." He added that an independent, strong and credible International Criminal Court was needed in order to try war criminals."

Over the past six years 139 UN civilian workers have been killed in the course of duty. 141 have been taken hostage. The ICRC balance sheet is equally chilling. The organisation has lost 30 staff in the course of duty over the past five years alone.

The ICRC expressed its strong solidarity with UNHCR, whose staff member Vincent Cochetel is still in captivity today, 144 days after he was kidnapped by gunmen in North Ossetia (Russian Federation). The two organizations appealed for his immediate release.