Atrocities Against Aid Workers

LAW condemns the increase in deliberate and targeted attacks on aid workers in recent years and the very high rates of impunity for these attacks. Very few perpetrators are being held accountable and there are virtually no prosecutions. Very few aid workers receive legal advice about the range of options to pursue justice and accountability. Just a few organisations are equipped to support their staff to pursue legal action, which is often viewed as too challenging and unlikely to succeed.

All-time High Aid Worker Casualties in 2020


Major attacks reported


Aid workers attacked


Aid workers killed


Aid workers seriously injured


Aid workers kidnapped

Rising Trend of Attacks

There is a clear rising trend of security incidents and attacks against aid workers – according to the Aid Worker Security Database, there were 277 incidents in 2019. The incidents are happening all around the world, but the highest number of cases in 2020 occurred in South Sudan, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

These cases also disproportionately affect national staff compared to international staff with the former having very little support or access to domestic, regional and international justice mechanisms, whilst European and North American staff are much more likely to engage with diplomatic and legal support from their governments.

Impunity of Atrocities Against Aid Workers

The trends in violence against humanitarian personnel have accelerated over the last 20 years with very little or no legal responses, resulting in almost total impunity for atrocities against aid workers.  The international response has focused mainly on security council resolutions, condemnations, and expressions of outrage with very little impact in real terms as the number of attacks on aid workers continue to increase yearly, with virtually no accountability.

As well as low prosecution rates, the rate of reporting is alarmingly low. Humanitarian aid worker victims and survivors have been reluctant to pursue cases for a range of reasons, including a lack of advice and support, limited financial capacity, security risks (actual and perceived), and deeply ingrained perceptions that it is not possible to achieve any form of justice or accountability.

It is imperative that the gaps in the system are addressed, and that humanitarian aid workers receive the same protection of the law, and access to justice, that the humanitarian system strives to ensure for the communities it works for.

How is LAW Responding?

LAW aims to respond to these atrocities by providing legal advice for humanitarian aid workers. Thereby removing systemic gaps in knowledge about available avenues to justice and accountability, whether through domestic, regional or international mechanisms. It is crucially important that the international community prioritises access to justice for humanitarian aid workers and pursues accountability for acts of violence. It is vital that the humanitarian community sends a strong message that we will respond to these attacks by pursuing perpetrators in addition to expressions of outrage.

France, supported by the European Union, also launched a discussion series in the run-up to the Security Council debate on this issue in July 2021. Legal Action Worldwide was invited to speak about addressing impunity through legal mechanisms in the Security Council debate about humanitarian space and protection. In the Outcome Document, the first key recommendation states that all attacks should be investigated, accountability strengthened, and existing impunity addressed.

In March 2021 LAW was invited to speak at the Global INGO security Forum conference on humanitarian space and protection. LAW facilitated three break-out rooms that were attended by staff from a wide range of large, mid-sized and small international NGOs. LAW presented the various options that could be open to humanitarian staff and sought feedback from INGO managers as to why organisations do not support their staff to pursue legal cases domestically or internationally. LAW has also started raising this issue with donors who are also key stakeholders in the humanitarian community.

Gaps to be addressed:  From discussions with aid workers, international organisations, and donors it seems that there are four major gaps to be addressed:

  • A lack of knowledge amongst donors, international organisations and their staff of the range of legal mechanisms and processes available to survivors and the families of victims, depending on the circumstances of each case;
  • The very limited resources available to provide legal counselling and representation for aid workers who wish to pursue justice and accountability;
  • A limited understanding of the major barriers that organisations and aid workers face to getting involved in legal action;
  • The lack of tools and guidance for organisations on how to deal with an incident, particularly in relation to ensuring that relevant evidence is preserved, and that legal advice is sought at the earliest opportunity.

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