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Attack on UNHCR staff in Pakistan

Briefing notes

Attack on UNHCR staff in Pakistan

17 July 2009

UNHCR is still in shock over the brutal killing yesterday of staff member Zill-e Usman, who was shot by unidentified gunmen in the Katcha Gari camp on the border of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. Another UNHCR staff member was wounded in the incident and is reported in stable condition. A guard working with the Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees, a government-funded agency, was also killed. Four to five gunmen reportedly opened fire on Mr. Usman as he was walking back from the camp administrative office to his car during a routine visit to the site.

Mr. Usman was the third UNHCR staff member to be killed in Pakistan this year.

On June 9, Aleksandar Vorkapic died in the bombing of the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar; on February 2, Syed Hashim, UNHCR senior driver, was killed in the kidnapping of John Solecki, head of the Quetta office, who was later released.

In expressing UNHCR's deepest condolences to Mr. Usman's family, High Commissioner António Guterres said there is no justification for attacks on humanitarian workers dedicated to the protection and care of the world's most vulnerable people. Deputy High Commissioner L. Craig Johnstone told staff gathered in Geneva headquarters for a minute of silence that the killing of Mr. Usman was an outrage and a tragedy that affects us all.

It also raises fundamental questions on how we can ensure staff security in a very difficult situation.

Globally, it reminds us of what the High Commissioner has previously described as a major dilemma facing humanitarian agencies around the world - how do we meet the life-or-death needs of the world's most vulnerable people while making sure those who provide that help are kept safe? Our ability to assist those who need it most is being severely tested by the shrinkage of what Mr. Guterres calls the 'humanitarian space' in which we must work. The nature of conflict is changing, with a multiplicity of armed groups - some of whom view humanitarians as legitimate targets.

Another example of this is the brutal murder this week of Ms. Natalia Estemirova, a staff member of UNHCR's implementing partner, Memorial, in the Russian Federation. Ms. Estemirova was found dead in the North Caucasus region of Ingushetia following her abduction from her home in Grozny. Since 2000, Ms. Estemirova had been a social worker with the NGO Memorial and its UNHCR-funded legal and social counselling project in Grozny. She worked on issues related to internally displaced people in Chechnya and their safe return to their homes. Memorial has been an implementing partner of UNHCR in the North Caucasus since 2000 and received UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award in 2004.

In an address in January to the UN Security Council, the High Commissioner noted that humanitarian personnel work in the most dangerous places in the world and risk their own lives in the effort to help vulnerable populations to preserve theirs. Ensuring staff safety must be a top priority of every humanitarian organization and the UN as a whole, he said, adding that this is non-negotiable.

And yet, with the evolving nature of armed conflict and the changing attitudes of some belligerents, the deliberate targeting of humanitarian workers has increased, establishing a tension - and in some situations a contradiction - between the imperatives of staff safety and humanitarian action. UNHCR has continuously struggled to determine the 'acceptable' level of security risk to which its staff members can be exposed.

As yesterday's tragedy demonstrates, it is a truly terrible dilemma.