World Humanitarian Day: We Need to Protect Humanitarian Workers

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This text was written by Omar Hajajra, a legal research intern at RWI. He is currently a Juris Doctor candidate at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, MA, United States of America. He previously earned his bachelors in history and political studies from Colby-Sawyer College and worked as a paralegal in immigration and asylum law.

A record 360,000,000 individuals are in need of humanitarian assistance worldwide this year, according to the United Nations. Think about this: a population larger than that of the entire United States of America—women, men, children and elderly—are experiencing conflict, hunger, or lack of access to basic necessities, and they need help. This August 19, 2023 marks the World Humanitarian Day, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly to increase “public awareness about humanitarian assistance activities worldwide” and to pay tribute to humanitarian and United Nations and associated personnel. The theme of this year’s celebration is #NoMatterWhat. Transcending borders, backgrounds, politics and conflicts, humanitarians are present on the ground helping those who need it the most. This year, the world should recognize the important work done by humanitarians, and governments need to double down on efforts to protect them.

Protection Mechanisms for Humanitarians

Humanitarian workers are afforded vital protections under international law, with agreements like the Geneva Conventions serving as cornerstones. These conventions lay out essential rules that must be adhered to during armed conflicts to ensure the safety and well-being of those not directly participating in the hostilities, including humanitarian workers. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, aimed at protecting civilians during conflicts, ensures that humanitarian workers are granted access to provide essential services to affected populations, even in occupied territories. These mechanisms play a pivotal role in safeguarding the lives of those who courageously put themselves in harm’s way to provide critical aid to vulnerable communities.

There are other international accountability mechanisms when it comes to humanitarian work. For example, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2175 calls for the protection of medical personnel and humanitarian personnel exclusively engaged in medical duties. In addition, Resolution 2286 directly addresses attacks on humanitarian workers, their supplies and convoys. Furthermore, the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials emphasizes the importance of safeguarding humanitarian workers during law enforcement operations, highlighting the principle of proportionality.

Humanitarian workers are facing unprecedented challenges

The existence and ratification of these and other robust mechanisms has been instrumental in safeguarding humanitarian work and workers, but written agreements alone have not been enough, with attacks and targeting of aid workers happening in numerous instances across the world. More must be done to enforce these mechanisms and to protect those who help others.

Humanitarians are present in ground zero from Yemen and the DRC, to Syria and the Mediterranean, to the Rohingya crisis and Gaza, and many others. They have helped care for people no matter the issues faced, the locations, or the identities of those affected. These are inspiring examples of the power of individuals coming together under the mission of empathy, compassion, and service.

Despite being at the forefront of crises and disasters, humanitarian work has not been easy. From climate disasters to the COVID-19 pandemic, to instability, armed conflict, and turmoil around the world, humanitarians are facing more obstacles than ever in their mission to save and help people. There is an ever-increasing need for food, water, shelter, sanitation, psycho-social support and safety, including for women and children. On top of this, they have been facing attacks and restrictions from state and non-state actors. Even with the fundamental principles of neutrality, humanity, impartiality, and independence in their work, humanitarians are targeted by parties to conflicts. We have seen this in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, among others.

Global solidarity and support for vulnerable communities

Humanitarians play an indispensable role in times of crisis, offering a glimmer of hope amidst turmoil. These dedicated individuals work tirelessly to alleviate suffering, provide essential aid, and restore a sense of normalcy to communities torn apart by conflict, disaster, or displacement. Through their selfless actions, humanitarians not only address immediate needs but also inspire global solidarity, reminding us of our shared humanity. Their efforts bridge gaps and transcend borders, illustrating that compassion knows no bounds.

The commitment to support humanitarians and advance humanitarian efforts resonates both within the United Nations and among member states. The UN, through its various agencies such as OCHA, UNHCR, and WHO, has been at the forefront of coordinating emergency responses, facilitating funding distribution, and ensuring effective collaboration among humanitarian actors. This unified approach streamlines aid delivery and enhances the safety of those on the frontlines. Additionally, states around the world are taking proactive measures to strengthen the environment for humanitarian work. By ratifying international agreements like the Geneva Conventions, states pledge to safeguard the well-being of humanitarian workers and uphold principles of neutrality and impartiality.

More states are enhancing legal frameworks to provide greater protection to aid operations and personnel. Initiatives like the Political declaration on the protection of medical care in armed conflict, the call for humanitarian action, and others demonstrate states’ dedication to ensuring the security of humanitarian workers in challenging settings. States are increasingly recognizing the crucial role of humanitarians in alleviating suffering and promoting stability. Through collaborative efforts with the UN and other stakeholders, states are fostering an environment where humanitarian workers can effectively operate, respond to crises, and bring hope to those in need.

Recommendation to States

  1. Uphold international humanitarian law: reinforce and commit to adherence to IHL to provide a safe environment for humanitarian workers.
  2. Facilitate access: ensure apolitical and unobstructed access for humanitarians and humanitarian aid to conflict zones, in line with international and national obligations.
  3. Combat impunity and enforce accountability: hold individuals, entities, and institutions that target humanitarians and humanitarian supplies accountable and promote deterrence. This can be best done through monitoring, investigation, documentation, and prosecution of attacks on or stifling of aid workers.
  4. Build local capacity: invest and elevate the work of local humanitarian workers and institutions to bolster state participation in this work and to respond to crises quickly, effectively, and locally. Likewise, invest in the training of armed and institutional personnel to uphold IHL.
  5. Education and open dialogue: increase institutional trainings when it comes to interacting with humanitarian workers and institutions, and facilitate dialogue between individuals and non-state actors with humanitarians to coordinate for safety and security of their work.


On this World Humanitarian Day, we must recommit to safeguarding those who help others. In their selfless courage to go into the worst of conflicts, to find those affected, and to be there for them time and time again, humanitarian workers are answering the call. The progress made by multilateral institutions and states in supporting aid workers is commendable, but more must be done to ensure their work continues #NoMatterWhat.

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