European Law Monitor

Make your voice heard!

new f2World Humanitarian Day: the European Union's support for humanitarian work

On the 19th of August ten years ago, the brutal onslaught to the United Nations' headquarters in Baghdad resulted in the death of the 22 people including the UN Special Representative in Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello. In memory of the victims of this attack and of all other humanitarians who find themselves in the line of fire, 19 August 2013 was designated as World Humanitarian Day (WHD) by the United Nations General Assembly in 2008.

As the world's largest donor of humanitarian aid, the European Union shares the concern for humanitarians' safety and their ability to perform their worthy mission. The assistance financed by the European Commission reaches the people who need it thanks to its 200 humanitarian partners which include United Nations agencies, non-governmental bodies and international organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent, the International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent and the International Organization for Migration. Thanks to aid workers, the European Commission is able to deliver on the solidarity of European citizens, the majority of whom support the European Union's assistance to the victims of crises and disasters.

An increasingly dangerous job

The attacks on humanitarian workers have increased in frequency and severity and many of these directly target humanitarians. In the last decade, more than 880 of them have been killed while delivering aid and another 1,450 have been kidnapped or wounded. Over the same period there has been a three-fold increase in security incidents where humanitarians have been targeted. The overwhelming majority of victims are humanitarians serving in their own country, a trend confirmed by the war in Syria. Humanitarian emblems and flags which traditionally provided a shield for humanitarian workers are now turning them into targets.

This is happening to people who help Syrian refugees, Congolese victims of rape, survivors of earthquakes and hurricanes and millions of victims of other crises. That the attacks target people helping save others' lives makes the injustice of the crimes against humanitarians even greater.

Recent examples of attacks on humanitarian workers

Afghanistan remains the most dangerous country for aid workers. Since the beginning of 2012 there have been 86 incidents where 31 relief workers have been killed and around 100 have been kidnapped, the vast majority of them Afghan nationals.

The war in Syria is also difficult and dangerous for humanitarians. Last March a local European Union (EU) policy officer died in a rocket attack in Damascus. At least 20 volunteers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and nine UN aid workers have been killed since the beginning of the turmoil.

In Somalia and Kenya the situation is also deteriorating. After the previous bout of insecurity, the UN had started to reopen its offices in Mogadishu, but a massive attack on their compound killed 15 people two months ago. On a positive note, two Spaniards working for Médecins Sans Frontières' who had been kidnapped near the Dadaab refugee camp (Kenya) were freed last month after 20 months in captivity.

The conflict in Darfur has alarming security implications for humanitarian workers. Last July two staff members of World Vision were killed during a cross-fire between Sudanese forces and rebel groups. The NGO decided to suspend its operations in the area, which may have left its one million beneficiaries at risk. It eventually resumed work in four camps for internally displaced people although in a limited way.

The attacks on humanitarians have enormous implications for those they are trying to help. Thousands of vulnerable people can be left without essential support if insecurity forces aid organisations to suspend operations or pull out of a dangerous region.

Respect for International Humanitarian Law

Humanitarian workers do not take sides – they help those who need help regardless of their nationality, religion, gender, ethnic origin or political affiliation. Nevertheless, wherever humanitarians are associated in the minds of warring factions with the military, or political, religious or ideological authorities, they will be in danger.

In wars, attacks against humanitarian personnel are a violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) which spells out the responsibilities of states and non-state parties during armed conflict regarding fundamental issues such as the right to receive humanitarian assistance, protection of civilians including medical and humanitarian workers, or the protection rights of refugees, women and children. IHL is binding on all states, but it is increasingly violated.

The European Union vigorously promotes compliance with International Humanitarian Law, including through advocacy, political measures and funding for humanitarian access, education and awareness on IHL. The European Commission funds training in IHL to civilian and military personnel engaged in EU crisis management operations such as the EU Training Mission in Mali (EUTM). From March to June, EUTM trained Malian soldiers on humanitarian principles, International Humanitarian Law, and protection to internally displaced persons, refugees, women and children.

Europe's humanitarian record

Europe has a long and proud tradition of humanitarian service, and is the birthplace of many of the world's biggest and most efficient relief organisations.

Throughout the years, the EU Member States have engaged and donated generously to support the victims of numerous emergencies.

The European Union as a whole has provided humanitarian aid for more than 40 years. In 1992 it created the European Community's Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) "to ensure a swifter and more effective intervention". In February 2010, when the current European Commission took up duty, ECHO was elevated to a full-fledged Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection and Kristalina Georgieva was appointed the first Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response.

Today the European Union is one of the largest donors of humanitarian aid.

Last year alone, the European Commission helped 122 million people in over 90 countries and in 2013 it keeps actively assisting the victims of the conflicts in Syria and Mali, the survivors of natural disasters in Asia, those affected by food insecurity in the Sahel and vulnerable populations trapped in forgotten crises such as the plight of the Colombian refugees or the turmoil in Central African Republic.

For further information

MEMO/13/741: World Humanitarian Day 2013: statement by EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva

The European Commission's Directorate-General of Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection:

Website of the European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, Kristalina Georgieva: