International Humanitarian Law: Domestically unenforceable (fourth in a series)

Danger sign-NGO workers face targeted attacks.

NGO workers face targeted attacks.

Nominally, state authorities are responsible for the security of their citizens and any other (law-abiding) persons passing through or residing in their national territory. In times of war, this protection is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and the principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). States have a duty to promote IHL and to train military and other personnel in how to apply it.”

2012 Aid Worker Security Report

The United Nations General Assembly implemented the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in December of 1948, almost 65 years ago. But have these principles had any effect in the behaviour of states towards those subject to International Humanitarian Law (IHL)?

The right to life, the right to work, the right to rest and leisure – ask any NGO worker and they will tell you how rare it is to see these rights observed outside of Western democracies. Many of the rights contained in the UDHR have been included in treaties and form part of most countries’ domestic law, proving human rights changes often to go hand-in-hand with domestic law.

But NGO workers often see mass violations of the UDHR even with domestic law in place to prevent such abuse, and they work to raise awareness of these issues, domestically and internationally. Often, the workers do this at great personal risk.

In Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous places for foreigners, it’s not uncommon for NGO aid workers to be targeted for violence, and according to the 2012 Aid Worker Security Report, the number of attacks worldwide is increasing. Most of these attacks take place in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan and Sudan, places in desperate need of NGO aid.

One of the most startling current methods of attack is acid. Many aid workers have recently fallen victim to these acid attacks. The ability of the host government to protect NGO workers under domestic law is, in these places, minimal at best, leading to a decline in humanitarian aid where it’s needed most.

The Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), an NGO active in the Middle East, has seen the death of two aid workers in the Central African Republic (CAR) recently during a refugee evacuation procedure. ACTED remains active in the field, aiding refugees across the Middle East. The UN released a statement condemning the murders, but there is little else to be done, proving that while the standards of the UDHR are endorsed internationally, implementing them under domestic law in an unstable society is another story altogether.

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The next article in this series will explore the impact NGOs themselves have on international law, and whether the United Nations Security Council really holds all the power.

Kristin Unger

Kristin Unger is an aspiring political journalist in her third year of a Political Science Bachelor's Degree at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

1 Comment

  • Avatar
    Reply December 8, 2013

    Aasim Raza

    The problem is that in countries like Afghanistan or Pakistan, the NGO workers are seen as foreign agents and therefore, their life is very in danger as they are viewed as allies of the West promoting Western agenda.
    Very recently a a group workers were shot dead in the tribal areas of Pakistan on the pretext that the drops given to the girls were not to immunize them against aids, but rather aimed at sterilizing the girls of the community.

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