CENTRE: 'We are helpers, not martyrs': UN aid workers are
increasingly becoming targets in the war zones they try to assist,
reports Mark Turner
Financial Times ;
07-Oct-2000 12:00:00 am ; 898 words
By MARK TURNER
was 10am when the United Nations convoy arrived at the Muzye
regroupment camp in southern Burundi, its mission to assess the
needs of civilians herded away from their homes in a war that has
cost the lives of more than 200,000 people.
of the visitors - a clutch of UN officials, aid workers and local
dignitaries - had already left their cars when one military escort
noticed armed people in a house ahead. He was running back when the
provincial governor, district commander and military escort ran
away, while two aid workers and the governor's driver screamed off
in vehicles. The six UN staff were not so lucky.
three men and three women were lined up against the side of a house
and robbed. Then two shots rang out, killing Luis Zuniga, a Chilean
working for Unicef, and Saskia von Meijenfeldt, a Dutch logistics
officer with the World Food Programme.
differ on what happened next. What is clear is that the visit on
October 12 last year was one more gruesome and confused example of
how UN humanitarian workers are increasingly becoming targets in the
war zones they are trying to help.
longer are relief workers angels who perform their duties in
isolation and retreat in glory. Over the past decade, the aid
business has become an integral part of today's complex emergencies
- and UN staff are regularly bombed, held hostage and killed.
1992, 198 civilians working for the UN have lost their lives. Only
one of their attackers - in Georgia - has been tried and indicted.
are deaths the only concern: since 1994, there have been 63 cases of
hostage-taking/ kidnapping involving 240 UN personnel.
1999 alone, there were 292 reported violent incidents involving UN
staff throughout the world, including robberies with violence,
physical assault, rape and vehicle hijacking.
an appalling record. And while the UN is by no means alone in its
difficulties - with private charity workers and journalists subject
to the same risks in unstable regions - its failure to tackle these
issues is causing increasing anger.
month, 1,500 UN staff demonstrated in Geneva against the global,
intergovernmental organisation's failure to learn from mistakes.
"We are aid workers, not martyrs," said Naveed Hussain,
head of the UN High Commission for Refugees staff council.
to one UN official well acquainted with the system, the increasing
danger is the result of member states' failure to provide for
adequate training and equipment.
system works on peace-keeping missions, but for non-peace-keeping
missions it systematically fails," he says. "There is no
money in the system, we cannot afford enough equipment, and security
officers in the field are left with no viable way of ensuring staff
is UN policy that the host country is responsible for the security
of staff: in Somalia, for example, that means you have to turn to
the warlords, and that falls apart routinely."
Gourdin recalls travelling in Somalia's Juba
valley, assessing floods. He was using the men of Osman Atto - a
significant Mogadishu warlord - for security but after passing
through the first checkpoint of a village, the second checkpoint
would not let him through. "He said he didn't care who the
security men were - he had the gun and he was the chief."
incident that followed resulted in Gourdin and two Food and
Agriculture Organisation men being beaten up - with Gourdin saved by
an old woman who hurled abuse at one of the militia.
another more recent case, in Merca, a group of armed militia
surprised a dinner party filled with UN officials; they had to be
saved by Starling Arush - a Somali warlady - who
beat them off with a shoe.
imminent UN report is likely to be damning. According to Diana
Russler, from the UN's security arm Unsecoord, there are only 59
inter-agency security officers around the world (mostly ex-army and
ex- police), looking after 70,000 UN staff and dependents, whereas a
bare minimum would be 80 to 100.
are only seven professionals in the New York headquarters, with an
annual budget of Dollars 600,000 (Dollars 200,000 after salaries). A
special fund for security and training has been woefully
undersubscribed, with only four countries contributing. Training is
being improved but it remains insufficient.
is an after-thought," says Russler. "Member states want
the UN to be out on the frontline but the security system
established reflects conditions in 1979."
such systems as are in place are not applied correctly. Why, asks
Elias Habte Selassie - Saskia von Meijenfeldt's husband - was the
Burundi mission only agreed a day before? Why was there so little
consultation and planning? And why, in a subsequent investigation,
did the UN not even visit the site?
UN official said that few lessons were learned in Burundi even after
von Meijenfeldt's death - with badly co-ordinated, ad hoc,
last-minute decisions still being taken regularly.
make matters worse, UN supplies often become a crucial part of a war
effort, and treating all sides equally is a daily, and not always
achievable, challenge. Combatants have many reasons to attack aid
workers: to gain supplies or halt assistance to the enemy, to gain
publicity, or even to use supplies as a bargaining counter in local
as long as humanitarian principles are applied - every hungry child
must be fed - aid agencies feel they cannot withdraw altogether.
is little consensus on how to improve things. There had been talk of
privatising security, but the costs appeared prohibitive. Proposals
for specific UN guards in difficult areas - which security experts
believe are the only true defence - are contentious.
Security Council should define how future peacekeeping operations
will protect humanitarian workers as well as civilians," says
Catherine Bertini, head of the World Food Programme. "And the
international community must be mobilised to punish those
responsible for crimes."
the meantime, the first step is for governments to recognise the
problem, which they still appear reluctant to do. "UN staff
members give everything they've got to save people living in the
worst circumstances on earth," says Bertini. "They
shouldn't have to give their lives, too."