Since February 24, the war in Ukraine has left at least 15.7 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and protection (UN OCHA). Many humanitarian agencies have scaled up their operations in response to the dramatic humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and its neighboring countries. But in a war that has seen large-scale attacks on civilian infrastructure, journalists, hospitals, and humanitarian corridors, how can those working to keep humanitarian staff and programs safe ensure that humanitarian organizations can deliver much-needed aid to crisis-affected communities?
The job of NGO security managers is to advise their NGOs about the safety and security risks in challenging environments like Ukraine. The Global Interagency Security Forum (GISF) supports NGO security staff of over 130 organizations and helps them collaborate to facilitate safe humanitarian operations. However, “the complexity of the potential threats to humanitarians working in response areas like Ukraine, Poland and Romania have reinforced the need to share information and work together,” says GISF Director Lisa Reilly.
As the conflict looks set to become protracted, these risks are not likely to dissipate but increase, posing more difficulties for NGOs supporting those affected by the war in Ukraine.
Old Challenges for Humanitarian Operations in Ukraine
Over the last three months of the war, the besiegement of urban centers such as Mariupol has led to calls from the international community for food, water, and medicine to be allowed into Ukrainian cities. This approach closely resembles tactics used during the war in Syria, such as the four-year-long siege of Aleppo. On March 3, Ukraine and Russia finally agreed to create humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians and allow humanitarians to deliver aid. However, implementation has been slow and humanitarian corridors have repeatedly been subject to attacks.
The suggestion to implement humanitarian corridors was met with caution by some analysts who instead assert that immediate ceasefires are necessary. Humanitarian corridors rely on warring parties to respect and abide by agreements to deconflict specific corridors, holding them as protected places. Ceasefires, by contrast, demand a wholesale cessation of hostilities—making them easier to monitor. Guarantees for humanitarian corridors usually rely on the good faith of all conflicting parties, who could try and justify attacks on humanitarian corridors by claiming that parties to the conflict were operating in these corridors, or that attacks were accidental.
For those working on humanitarian security risk management (SRM), evaluating the risks for NGOs to deliver aid through these corridors is difficult. NGOs’ decisions about whether or not to deliver aid despite high-security risks are informed by the severity of the needs of the population and the organization’s own risk appetite. In Ukraine, these types of operations are lifesaving for the civilian population. Moreover, the urgency for this aid to reach those who need it is paired with a lack of alternative options.
Attacks on humanitarian corridors are a violation of international humanitarian law (IHL) but, unfortunately, a lack of respect for IHL is nothing new. Conflicts like Syria already saw the repeated targeting of hospitals, civilian infrastructure, and humanitarian corridors. The accuracy and frequency with which humanitarian targets were hit raised questions about whether the UN’s deconfliction mechanism, which was meant to prevent such attacks on humanitarian and civilian infrastructure, was instead used to choose targets for airstrikes.
In Ukraine, the WHO states that attacks on medical facilities are rising daily, and by May 3, 167 health facilities were targeted. This has raised serious concerns for NGO security managers regarding whether they can rely on traditional IHL mechanisms to ensure that humanitarians can do their job without running the heightened risk of getting injured or killed in the process.
New Challenges in the Digital Arena
These traditional threats intersect with new risks in the digital and cyber domain for NGOs. Evolving digital threats can further impact NGOs’ ability to manage security risks while operating in line with the ‘Do No Harm’ principle and adhering to humanitarian principles.
The war in Ukraine has probably been one of the most digitally broadcasted conflicts of our time. The amount of information, photos, and videos available across different platforms like Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, and traditional media, has proven to be a real challenge for those conducting context analyses and security risk assessments. The prevalence of misinformation and propaganda in this war further obstructs NGOs’ ability to make timely and informed decisions about their operations.
Cyber-attacks have also been a prominent feature of this conflict. NGOs not only retain sensitive information about their staff but also about the vulnerable groups they support. If this information were to fall into the wrong hands, this could pose serious ethical, security and legal issues—for example, information that could reveal a staff and beneficiary’s partisan leanings could be used to punish an individual at a later stage. Security managers have been forced to closely look at their IT and cyber security infrastructure to protect the data of their staff and beneficiaries in line with their duty of care obligations, the Do No Harm principle, as well as legal GDPR requirements.
The rapidly changing nature of these risks in the digital arena, paired with little guidance for NGO security managers on how to assess and feed these concerns into their risk assessments, has implications for humanitarian operations in Ukraine and beyond.
For humanitarian agencies to negotiate humanitarian access, the principle of neutrality is of utmost importance. Only if all warring parties believe organizations to be neutral and impartial will they usually allow humanitarians to aid civilians while providing them with guarantees for their safety. In Ukraine, though, maintaining this neutrality has proven to be difficult, and the blurring of old and new risks has posed challenges for NGOs.
Some NGOs delivered programs in Ukraine before the war and are now scaling up their response. Others are only just entering the operating environment. However, in a conflict where the Ukrainian government is mobilizing all people and resources possible to defend itself, the lines between civilians and combatants can appear to become more blurred.
This, in no way, justifies any attacks on civilians. However, with Ukraine ordering full military mobilization, Ukrainian NGO staff have been called to join the fight against Russia on the frontlines, posing difficulties for NGOs’ staffing strategies. (Former) staff’s association with their NGOs on social media while being combatants can pose problems for the perceived neutrality of their organizations.
Similar trends can be seen around consumer drones which, “are becoming a dominant feature of the conflict” according to Foreign Policy. Drone consultant and specialist Faine Greenwood argues that while consumer drones have become a prominent component of modern wars—in both civil and military functions—their application and relation to IHL remains ambiguous.
She states that civilian drone owners were encouraged to sign up their drones to help military operations by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and that both Russian and Ukrainian militaries have been reported to use consumer drones. Journalists, as well as those monitoring and documenting human rights and IHL violations, also rely on drones, and the same types of drones have been used by humanitarian agencies to deliver aid in other contexts.
In Ukraine, we are now seeing that drone manufacturers like Draganfly are announcing the donation of medical drones to deliver health assistance in cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv. In this case, each drone can approximately carry up to 16 kilograms of medical supplies. In a context that has seen the besiegement of urban centers and targeting of humanitarian corridors and aid workers, delivering much-needed assistance via air without putting staff at risk could be a new opportunity for humanitarian agencies.
Still, there remains confusion around what small drones are, who they belong to, and what they look like which has raised legal questions about how they fit into IHL. Risks of their attack by combatants who can have difficulties differentiating between military, civilian and humanitarian drones make it difficult for NGOs to use the opportunity to rely on them as an alternative way to deliver aid.
Facilitating Safe Operations in the Long Run
For those assessing and advising NGO leadership about what these risks can mean for the safety and security of humanitarian operations, keeping up with the constantly developing nature of these threats is challenging. Moreover, the war in Ukraine is occurring alongside other large-scale humanitarian crises like Yemen, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan, making it increasingly difficult for NGO security staff to reflect and learn from previous operations. Secondary impacts of the war in Ukraine on other humanitarian crises are likely, with food insecurity leading to more instability across the world.
Yet it remains essential that NGOs and donors continue to recognize the importance of investing in their security and safety. The diversity of risks in Ukraine highlights the capacity and resources needed to manage them. As many of these risks are likely to be seen in other contexts in the future, developing systems and processes to manage them now is crucial. As humanitarian needs grow worldwide to unprecedented levels, ensuring NGO staff’s safety and well-being while delivering aid is key to enabling humanitarian access and supporting the hundreds of millions of people in need of assistance.
Chiara Jancke is a Research Advisor for GISF, the Global Interagency Security Forum, a peer support NGO focused on humanitarian security risk management. She manages practical research projects to improve the safety and security of aid workers. She is particularly interested in issues of acceptance, humanitarian access, and equitable partnerships.
Tara Arthur is GISF’s Senior Projects and Membership Officer, she is responsible for fostering GISF member engagement and developing member services that contribute to good practice for security risk management. She is the current host of GISF’s latest podcast series on inclusive security. She is particularly interested in issues on inclusive security and digital security.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of GISF and do not reflect its member organizations’ positions or views.
Suggested citation: Chiara Jancke and Tara Arthur, New Risks and Old Challenges – Navigating Security Threats in Ukraine to Deliver Humanitarian Aid, JURIST – Professional Commentary, May 16, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/05/chiara-jancke-tara-arthur-security-threats-ukraine-humanitarian-aid/.
This article was prepared for publication by Viraj Aditya, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org