Home Institution

University of Illinois at Chicago

Publication Date

Summer 2013

Program Name

Switzerland: International Studies and Multilateral Diplomacy


When considering the increasing frequency with which humanitarian aid workers are being threatened, abducted or killed, one has to question the fundamental reason for this sharp rise in statistics. Are human and aid workers merely collateral damage in a conflict? Are they getting to close to the ‘eye’ of the conflict? Or is there another explanation? Due to the increased frequency by which they come to harm’s way, the answer is much more disturbing. They are intentional targets, because of the changing scopes of modern warfare. Armed groups such as the Taliban, who are analyzed in this paper, increasingly target health and aid workers along with their facilities for the purpose of enacting their political and religious views. A lack of trust and understanding of mandates or perceived aspects of aid also contributes to this violent rise.

Workers on the other hand fail to fully incorporate their mandates while providing assistance. Fundamental principles such as: neutrality and impartiality are muddied due to several of their actions for the sake of aid. Actions such as collaborating with a rebel group that may with many different factions or collaborating with the state in order to facilitate aid can also be seen as non-neutral by an opposition. This increasingly puts the workers in harm’s way. An effective approach to providing aid consists of using the above stated principles such as neutrality as a means to access and help to protect those in need of humanitarian action. In situation such as Afghanistan, for political and ideological reasons, this approach tends to be the most effective and the safest. According to expert Antonio Donini, insulation or separation from partisan political agendas is a better recipe for access and acceptance both by belligerents and communities.[1] Protecting humanitarian aid providers is akin to protecting civilians and victims of the war. Their safety and security begins with their actions or in-actions such as: scenario planning which consists of recognizing the evolution of conflict. The failures in their ‘westernized approach’ or at least in the appearance of not adhering to principles should also be taken into account.

Communication and diplomatic relations of intentions with ALL parties of a conflict helps to ensure the protection of those seeking to provide assistance. Humanitarian diplomacy at its most successful bridges cultural differences and overcomes negative perceptions, as a result, trust is built and lives are safer. At the best use of this instrument that must be employed completely by health and aid workers, their diplomatic relations helps to facilitate aid and assistance, which is their intent from the start.

[1] Antonio Donini, “Humanitarian action in Afghanistan: an uphill battle,” Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, Issue 49 (2011), Accessed July 2013. Web. < http://www.odihpn.org/humanitarian-exchange-magazine/issue-49/humanitarian-action-in-afghanistan-an-uphill-battle>.


Defense and Security Studies | Peace and Conflict Studies | Politics and Social Change | Regional Sociology