For humanitarian aid workers, Iraq is the most dangerous country in the world
LIKE MANY in the aid community, I was saddened to learn of last week’s bombing in Baghdad. At least 24 people, most of them UN aid workers, died when a flatbed truck filled with explosives slammed into the UN headquarters at the Canal Hotel. Over the years, I, like others who have worked in Iraq, have spent countless hours in the Canal, coordinating aid efforts with UN officials.
The dead included the United Nations’ top envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, whom UN Secretary General Kofi Annan eulogized as “a servant of humanity.” Sergio, the high commissioner for human rights, was in Baghdad to help Iraqis re-establish their administration and rebuild their country—as he had
done several years before with the citizens of Kosovo and East Timor. Also killed were Canadians Christopher Klein-Beekman from Courtenay, B.C., who was UNICEF Iraq’s program coordinator, and Gillian Clark of Toronto, who was working for the Christian Children’s Fund.
The explosion occurred at 4:30 p.m., a time when overworked and overburdened aid workers, having spent the day in the field, typically are settling in for a long evening at the office. Who could even think about leaving work early when so much
help is needed? In the end, it could be argued that it was this selfless dedication that killed them. Iraq is, without a doubt, currently the most dangerous country in the world in which to deliver humanitarian assistance.
Like Christopher, I was in my early 30s when I first worked for UNICEF in Iraq, during the early 1990s. We had no water, electricity or food—but we didn’t have American soldiers, snipers or grenade attacks either. Despite frequent visits to Iraq since 1991,1 have only recendy felt that my efforts to help those in greatest need had turned me into a moving target. During my latest visit in July, an international aid worker was killed and a grenade was tossed into the front yard
of an aid agency’s compound. At a briefing, the U.S. military advised us to avoid driving over pop cans or even paper bags, as they were likely to be “improvised explosive devices.” There was not a moment when I did not fear violence. And I knew others in the aid community shared my concern.
Such horrendous security conditions in Iraq make it virtually impossible for aid workers to get around, and where you lay your head
at night, or which meetings you choose to attend, can feel like a terrifying game of Russian roulette. In that sense, the attack, although reprehensible, will unfortunately not come as a surprise to anyone engaged with humanitarian programs in Iraq. The violence against aid workers has been escalating for weeks. What is surprising, however, is that attacks of this nature are considered par for the course when, in fact, they are a relatively recent phenomenon, the root causes of which are stirring debate within the aid community. The line between humanitarian actors and military targets has all but been erased, and the notion of aid agencies operating in a neutral and safe “humanitarian space”
is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends. This is happening for several reasons. For one thing, there are more aid workers and they are pushing deeper into the world’s most dangerous places. Many wars are also now being fought by poorly trained rebels and irregular militias. Most of these armstoting thugs don’t even understand the concept of international law, let alone respect it. To that end, aid workers, like other civilians, are becoming instruments of warrebels and terrorists believe that by attacking non-combatants, including killing and raping them, they can destabilize governments and, in the case of Iraq, give pause to American occupiers.
But this is only one part of the problem. In Iraq, as in many recent conflicts around the world including Kosovo and Afghanistan, it has become increasingly difficult for aid agencies to clearly separate themselves from the military in the administration of humanitarian assistance. The military is often, appropriately, called upon to provide secu-
rity. But when armies that wage war also escort aid convoys, distribute food and water, rehabilitate schools and establish refugee camps, it is nearly impossible for aid workers to distinguish themselves from the military apparatus. To an armed insurgent, anyone handing out a food packet could be a soldier. And aid workers are paying the price in larger numbers than ever before. Each year, more of them are killed in the line of duty
than are international peacekeepers.
So aid agencies in Iraq have gone to great lengths to disassociate themselves from the U.S. armed forces. Two days before last week’s bombing, the Non-governmental Organizations Coordination Committee in Iraq, a coalition of some 100 international and Iraqi charities, e-mailed its members a recommended code of conduct. This includes no socializing with members of the armed forces, no travelling in military vehicles except in emergencies, no soldiers on aid agency premises, no carrying weapons, and so on. Some international aid agencies, including Oxfam, have refused to receive any funding for their Iraq operations from governments involved in the war in Iraq. But it is a distinction wasted on those wishing to further destabilize the country.
Some will ask why there wasn’t greater U.S. protection of the UN headquarters in Iraq.
Despite many Iraqis’ disdain for the organization—which they blame as much as the U.S. for the negative effects of more than 12 years of sanctions—there was still a high level of respect for the individual aid workers trying to help Iraqis rebuild their country. And no doubt the UN itself, perhaps mistakenly, in retrospect, felt safer by not surrounding itself with U.S. soldiers.
None of this is a rationale, let alone an ex-
cuse, for last week’s despicable act of violence. Those responsible must be sought out and brought to justice. But now is also the time to take stock of how we arrived at this point and how we can enhance the safety of our humanitarian workers in Iraq and around the world.
Christopher Klein-Beekman was three weeks away from his 32nd birthday when he died in the worst attack against the United Nations in its 58-year history. I remember meeting him at the UNICEF offices in Baghdad earlier this year. Canadians have a way of seeking each other out in the field and the rapport is always instantaneous. Find the peacemakers, the do-gooders—this is how we like to think of ourselves— and you will find Canadians over-
represented in any hot spot.
In Ottawa, just down the road from the governor general’s residence in Rideau Falls Park, the monument to Canadian aid workers bears silent witness to the scores of Canadians who have given their lives in the service of humanity. Before long, and with the permission of their families, plaques bearing the names of Klein-Beekman and Clark will be added to the 83 names preceding them, including B.C. nurse and Red Cross worker Nancy Malloy, who was murdered alongside five of her co-workers in Chechnya in 1996. They all knew the risks, but none could have been prepared for the sacrifice. Canada’s humanitarian workers are a unique bunch whose generosity has touched the lives of millions around the world. They are silent heroes and, as such, rarely acknowledged. Except, tragically, when they die. f71
Eric Hoskins is a doctor with extensive experience working with the UN and non-governmental organizations. He has been to Iraq more than 30 times.
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