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9 February 2018updated 05 Oct 2023 8:38am

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. 

By Kevin Watkins

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.

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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.

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