Violence against UN, aid workers on the rise, report finds

Two World Food Program officers help a woman to load her properties to a truck in Nyala, South Darfur. Photo by: Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID / CC BY-NC-ND

Overall violence against United Nations and other humanitarian workers increased last year, and the threat level is unlikely to abate anytime soon.

Twenty-three U.N. workers were killed in 2015, the highest numbers seen since 2011, when 26 died on the job, according to the annual U.N. secretary-general report on safety and security of U.N. and humanitarian personnel. Meanwhile, 1,819 United Nations personnel were affected by safety and security incidents in 2015, 85 more than were impacted in 2014.

Most fatalities came as a result of crime and violent acts, as well as terrorism, armed conflict and civil unrest, as the U.N. operates in Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq and other complex environments.

“I am unhappy to assess things are not getting better they may even get worse in terms of the level of threats … against U.N. personnel and humanitarian personnel,” João Vale de Almeida, the European Union’s ambassador to the U.N., said at the presentation of the findings on Tuesday at U.N. headquarters. “We simply cannot send our people to help if we cannot ensure their safety and security standards. We owe this to them as much as we owe it to their beneficiaries.”

The report documents crime and safety incidents, including traffic accidents, from 2015 through the first six months of this year. Five U.N. staffers have died from violence in 2016, while there have been 749 reported security and safety incidents during the first six months of this year.

The number of direct attacks on U.N. premises and vehicles increased threefold from 2014 to 2015, rising from 80 to 299. The most significant incident happened in March 2015, when a U.N. humanitarian convoy in Syria delivering aid was ambushed and 17 U.N. personnel were abducted.

This spike in attacks on premises and vehicles has a “silver lining,” though, as Vale de Almeida said, since it did not correspond proportionately with the number of U.N. casualties.

Locally recruited personnel have faced particular risks: They accounted for 64 percent of U.N. personnel affected by all incidents in 2015, said Peter Drennan, the U.N.’s undersecretary-general for safety and security. Security provisions at the homes of locally recruited people are being reviewed by the U.N., according to the report.

Women represent about 40 percent of all U.N. personnel and accounted for 39 percent of the security incidents last year. Men were killed, injured, abducted and harassed at higher rates, though women were more affected by sexual assault and robbery.

There were 12 sexual assault cases reported last year by U.N. staffers, an increase from eight in 2014. Thirteen more cases were logged in the first half of 2016.

Non-U.N. humanitarian workers, meanwhile, faced 641 security and safety incidents last year, resulting in the deaths of 41 people between January 2015 and June 2016. This marked a decrease from 2014-2015, when 631 incidents and 92 deaths were reported.

Drennan stressed that the security of aid workers and health care workers, in particular, is a “matter of deep concern,” in an environment he described as “increasingly dangerous.” He noted that as the U.N. works to strengthen its security measures for staff, it is increasingly able to venture into “higher risk environments” that international nonprofits might not normally frequent.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.