Show Hide image

The attack on Save the Children aid workers is part of a wider pattern of violence

Both militias and state actors are implicated in attacks on aid workers. 

On 24 January 2018, four Save the Children staff were killed in Jalalabad, southern Afghanistan, when our office was targeted by a heavily armed group, including a suicide bomber. Families and friends have been robbed of loved ones. Our organisation has been devastated by the loss of colleagues working to help children in desperate need. But this was not just an attack on Save the Children. It was also an attack on the values that define our shared humanity.

What happened in Jalalabad was one episode in a wider pattern of violence. In 2016, 101 aid workers were killed, across a broad swathe of countries from Afghanistan and Syria to South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. Many more were injured, kidnapped or detained or by armed groups. The vast majority of those killed or wounded were, like the Save the Children staff in Jalalabad, nationals of the countries in which they were working.

In the public mind, attacks on aid workers are overwhelmingly associated with militias operating outside of state control. That perception is partly right. Groups like Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria, Islamic State and Al-Shabaab in Somalia have targeted aid workers. Yet state actors are also heavily implicated. Some of the most lethal attacks on aid workers have been carried out in Syria by Russian and government forces.

Reciting the headline numbers does not capture the human tragedies being played out in so many countries. The aid workers targeted in Jalalabad included one staff member working on a project delivering education to children in a country with some of the world’s lowest rates of school enrolment. Last March, armed groups killed six aid workers in South Sudan guilty of nothing more than helping former child soldiers rebuild their lives. One month later, a maternity hospital supported by Save the Children in Idlib, Syria was bombed.

Viewing these attacks in isolation can divert attention from a far wider assault on human rights. The most lethal weapon in that assault is the erosion of rules, norms and laws designed to protect civilians caught up in armed conflict.

Nowhere is the descent into barbarism more evident than in the treatment of children. In theory, children are protected by a barrage of rights enshrined in documents like the Geneva Conventions on humanitarian law, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is the most widely ratified convention in history, and the Rome Statute which governs the International Criminal Court. The reality is that the rights of children trapped in conflict are being gravely and systematically violated with total impunity.

Non-state groups bear much of the responsibility. Last year, in his report to the UN Security Council on children and armed conflict, the UN Secretary General documented over 6,800 attacks on children by armed non-state actors, including killing, rape and abduction. The depravity behind these attacks defies description.

Unfortunately, depravity is not confined to non-state actors. Reflect for a moment on the crisis unfolding in Yemen. This is a country being pushed towards famine by the obstruction of humanitarian aid and the destruction of vital infrastructure by the Saudi-led coalition. Around 400,000 children are at risk of starvation. Lives are being lost to hunger and preventable illnesses like diphtheria, measles and pneumonia. Schools and health clinics have been bombed to devastating effect.

All of this is in contravention of the letter and the spirit of the rights protecting Yemeni children. Humanitarian blockades are outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. The bombing of schools and health clinics may constitute war crimes. Yet I somehow doubt those responsible are nervously anticipating their day at the International Criminal Court. And for all the moral exhortation, western countries continue to arm and ally themselves with the Saudi-led coalition.

Densely populated urban areas have become terrifying and lethal places to be a child. From Aleppo to Raqqa, hundreds of thousands of children have been trapped in areas subjected to military tactics reminiscent of the siege of Stalingrad. The deadly assault by the Syrian army now underway in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta has seen heavy artillery, rockets and aerial bombardment of civilian areas. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 41 children have been killed. Where do their parents turn for justice?

The same question could be asked dozens of times over. One month ago, I spent time talking with some of the 400,000 Rohingya children forced to flee their homes in Myanmar. There is nothing that prepares you for a conversation with children who have seen parents killed, sisters raped, their homes burned. Yet those responsible for the heinous crimes committed are free to walk the streets of Yangon. The UN Secretary General documents systematic attacks on children by government forces in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the militias they support, including mass rape, killing and maiming. The Security Council expresses concern – and then it’s back to business as usual.

We have to draw a line in the sand. The time has come to reassert the rule of law in defence of children whose lives, limbs and futures are threatened by armed conflict. That means protecting the space for impartial humanitarian action, standing up for universal human rights, and holding those responsible for crimes against children accountable for their actions. There must be no hiding place for those who fail in their responsibility to protect children.

At a time when multilateralism is under attack, trust in institutions is in retreat, and international cooperation is weakening, we need a cause with the potential to unite people across the boundaries of nations, faiths, and political differences. Defending the children who represent our collective future, and the aid workers bringing hope in the midst of despair, is surely that cause.

Kevin Watkins is the chief executive of Save the Children UK. 

Show Hide image

Can Britain’s new powers to investigate unexplained wealth prevent real-life McMafias?

The government is waking up to the fact that global criminals are fond of London. 

The BBC’s McMafia, a story of high-flying Russian mobsters and international money launderers woven into the fabric of London, ended this month. Despite the dramatic TV twists, the subject matter has its basis in reality. As a barrister dealing with cases that involve Russia and former Soviet states, my experience is that politicians and business people use the apparatus of the state to put rivals out of business by any means possible.

In McMafia, previously straight-laced fund manager Alex Godman (played by James Norton) begins transferring money under the cover of a new investment fund. With a click of a button, he can transfer a shady partner’s money around the world. As the Paradise Papers underlined, money can indeed be hidden through the use of complex company structures registered in different countries, many of which do not easily disclose the names of owners and beneficiaries. One company can be owned by another, so the owner of Company A (in Panama) might be Company B (in the Cayman Islands) which is owned by Company C (in the Seychelles) which owns property in London. To find out who owns the property, at least three separate jurisdictions must be contacted and international co-operation arranged – and that’s a simple structure. Many companies will have multiple owners, making it even more difficult to work out who the actual beneficiary is.

I represent individuals before the UK extradition and immigration courts. They are bankers, business people and politicians who have fled persecution in Russia and Ukraine or face fabricated charges in their home country and face extradition or deportation and will often be tortured or put on show trial if we lose. Their opponents will deploy spies, who may pay visits to co-defendants in Russia for “psychological work” (aka torture). Sometimes the threat of torture or ruin against a person’s family is enough to make them confess to crimes they didn’t commit. I have seen family members of my clients issued with threats of explicit violence and the implicit destruction of their life. Outside their close relatives’ homes in Russia, cars have been set on fire. Violence and intimidation are part of the creed that permeates the country’s business and political rivalries.

As in McMafia, London has long played a bit part in these rivalries, but the UK government has been slow to act. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent turned defector, was killed in London using Polonium 210 – a radioactive substance put into a cup of tea. Although Russian state involvement was suspected from the beginning, the UK government tried to block certain material being released into the public domain, leading his family to complain that the UK’s relations with Russia were being put before the truth. In 2016, a decade after his death, the inquiry finally delivered its verdict: there was a “strong probability” Litvinenko was murdered on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin. Yet in the same breath as condemning the act, David Cameron’s spokeswoman said the UK would have to “weigh carefully” the incident against “the broader need to work with Russia on certain issues”.

The government of Cameron’s successor has however been quick to use McMafia as a spring-board to publicise its new Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO). These new investigatory powers are purportedly to be used to stop the likes of Alex from hiding money from the authorities. Anyone with over £50,000 of property who is politically exposed or suspected of a serious crime, will be forced to disclose the source of their wealth on request. While most British homeowners would own more than £50,000, the individuals are likely to be high profile politicians or under investigation already by the authorities. If they fail to respond punctually, they risk forfeiting their property.

The anti-corruption organisation Transparency International has long campaigned for such measures, highlighting cases such as the first family of Azerbaijan owning property in Hampstead or senior Russian politicians believed to own flats in Whitehall. Previously, confiscating hidden assets has been a lengthy and complex process: when the High Court confiscated an £11m London house belonging to a Kazakh dissident, the legal process took seven years.

The new Unexplained Wealth Orders mean that the onus is shifted to the owner of the property to prove legitimacy and the origin of the wealth. The authorities will have much greater power to investigate where finance and investment originated. But in order for them to work effectively, they will have to be backed up by expert prosecutors. The government still has a long way to go before it makes London a less attractive place to hide money.

Ben Keith is a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill specialising in extradition, immigration, serious fraud, human rights and public law.