NGOs Like World Central Kitchen Must Do More to Protect War Zone Aid Workers Commentary
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NGOs Like World Central Kitchen Must Do More to Protect War Zone Aid Workers

Without irony, Chef Jose Andres of World Central Kitchen (WCK) accused Israel of a “crime against humanity” in the recent accidental deaths of seven WCK volunteers by an Israeli air strike in Gaza. His accusation has generated a furious, and troubling discussion — focused on Israel’s culpability. US President Joe Biden claimed Israel has not “done enough to protect aid workers” during the war. But it also bears considering whether WCK did enough to protect its own volunteers.

Strikes have always killed innocent people in war zones. Target discrimination is always balanced against military necessity. Even when tremendous effort is made, it is a known and accepted truth that innocent people will die in war. In the law, we refer to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden of proof, and in the US, a death sentence can hinge on this level of certainty. In modern war, a strike of this nature is not like firing off artillery into a general area. More likely, when the commander gave the authorization for the drone strike, he was working to support the specific strategic goal of the ongoing military action in Gaza. The team that made the strike felt it met the threshold for their strike authority.

To make matters worse, Andres, the celebrated chef who runs WKC, has made ongoing serious — and we believe irresponsibly inaccurate — statements about Israeli intentionality. The unintentional killing of a civilian in a war zone is tragic, but it is not a war crime. The specific and intentional targeting of a civilian or aid worker is, however. It was in this legal environment that Andres made the extraordinary claim that Israel deliberately targeted the WCK workers. His assertion was based on an observation that Israel continued to fire when people moved from truck to truck. Such movements did not reveal that the people being targeted were aid workers and instead indicated a clear misunderstanding on the part of Chef Andres on what was taking place. Israel has been fighting a complex war where the enemy fights among civilians and wears civilian clothing. In response to the killing of the WCK workers, Israel took full responsibility, fired two senior officers, and reprimanded three others — in what now, days later, seems like a possible overreaction.

Indeed, there is another area of discussion that has unfortunately gotten far less attention following the strike: the nature of the humanitarian organizations doing this work in war zones — their funding, their procedures, and the assumptions under which they operate.

A desire to sacrifice oneself is among the highest impulses that we, as humans, experience and express. The urge to volunteer is in our genes; indeed, altruism is even seen in the primitive slime mold. We experience altruism as an element of a deep desire for meaning in our lives. According to concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, one path to meaning is by aligning ourselves with a purpose greater than ourselves. Supplying food to the hungry potentially fulfills such a desire.

But volunteerism is also a fundamental expression of the freedom to choose. In a risky world, volunteers must carefully weigh the risks and benefits. Sometimes actual risks are not known. Sometimes we curtail a choice because the risks outweigh the benefits.

Humanitarian aid workers are considered non-combatants and enjoy the same protections as civilians in a war zone, according to well-established international humanitarian law. The purpose of international humanitarian law is to limit the effects of armed conflict by protecting people not directly participating in the hostilities. In every war zone, there exist non-combatants, either from the military itself such as medics, the local civilian population, or non-combatant volunteers.

After Hamas invaded Israel on October 7, many American physicians had the impulse to fly to Israel to provide volunteer care for the injured. In an email sent to the medical staff of NYU Langone Health, Executive Vice President and Vice Dean for Clinical Affairs and Strategy Dr. Andrew Brotman appropriately pointed out that sponsored workers’ compensation, long-term disability, and accidental death and dismemberment insurance specifically contained a “war risk exclusion.” This means staff insurance policies do not provide coverage for injuries or death arising because of war. Providing medical care in war zones is dangerous work. The Medical Center wanted to be sure that potential volunteers were aware of the risks to life and limb that working in a war zone entailed – and to be clear about the legal limitations of institutional responsibility for individual action. With sincere concern for the safety of potential medical volunteers, the letter emphasized: “We recommend that any volunteer work be arranged and performed through a reputable non-profit or government agency, who may be able to assist by providing such insurance or referring employees to insurers who could provide this.”

In battle, if a civilian chooses to fight or assist in the fight, they lose their protected status. If they are captured while fighting as an unlawful combatant, they do not enjoy the protections afforded to prisoners of war. Unlawful combatants are subject to domestic punitive punishments that may include prolonged incarceration or even execution. Aid workers entering a war zone from abroad raise legal and ethical questions both on the nature of volunteerism in dangerous situations and the fiduciary duties of aid organizations in such places.

This is important not least because these humanitarian organizations have become clearinghouses for enormous sums of money, both public and private. “World Central Kitchen has quickly become a mainstay of American philanthropy, with contributions on par with much older organizations,” wrote the AP. “The charity in 2022 reported $518 million in total contributions and Andrés himself received $100 million from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2021.”  The WCK mission in Gaza is being funded by the Emirati government. We do not know what the UAE may expect from WCK, either explicitly or tacitly, in exchange for this funding.

At its inception, WCK focused on bringing food relief to communities struck by natural disasters, including hurricanes and earthquakes. In Europe, WCK initially based their efforts at a pedestrian border crossing in Poland, and later moved into areas of active military conflict. The organization explicitly states that volunteers come of their own volition, “do so at their own cost and by making their own arrangements.”

In Ukraine, several volunteers from WCK have been killed so far by shelling and airstrikes. When confronted by this information, WCK founder Chef Jose Andres stated “As a cook, as a chef, when I founded this organization, I never expected that this will happen.”

As it continues to expand its activities into active war zones, WCK owes more to its volunteers and must take responsibility for their safety beyond making them aware of tangible risk. A war zone is decidedly different from one of natural disasters. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is another medical NGO currently in Gaza. Like WCK, MSF started by providing humanitarian services in locales affected by epidemics and disasters. Over the years they have moved into areas of geopolitical conflict, with now more than 30% of their activities in zones of armed conflict. MSF requires long commitments from volunteers or provides a very low rate of pay. In a recent report, MSF states that since 2015, 26 MSF staff in 10 separate events have died, including during the storming or bombing of hospitals. Over the last five years, MSF staff have died in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and the Central African Republic. Since 1989, 97 MSF members have been killed in 59 separate events. It is unclear how many MSF members have died in Gaza, but a report from November 2023 reports 2 deaths. From MSF perspective, it appears that a regular rate of staff death has become part of the understanding of what working for MSF might involve. What is not clear is how many of these deaths would be preventable if MSF withdrew or changed deployment tactics. When Yemen came under bombing attack from Saudi Arabia in 2015, MSF staff were only pulled out after the fourth bombing incident.

In the aftermath of last week’s accidental strike in Gaza, WCK stated it would henceforth pause operations there. This decision raises the questions of how well the organization’s leadership understood the real risk to its own workers and what its responsibility to them should have been — and which of their own decisions, if any, were involved in creating the conditions for this mistake to have happened.

It is a given that WCK needed military assent, not only from the Israel Defense Force (IDF) but also from Hamas. It had to be clear to military forces what WCK was always doing, and they had to be constantly identified as not a military target. If WCK traveled in a convoy, was it styled in a way that Hamas might do or was it clearly identified as non-military vehicles? Was Hamas using WCK movements to cover its own movements? Self-identification in the battle space can also be used against an enemy. In the Afghanistan war, the Taliban would move around in the open surrounded by children. They understood US strike authority would not permit their targeting under that circumstance. WCK had security guards, but the purpose of this security is unclear. Were they armed to defend against attack? If so, they might inadvertently have been seen as a legitimate military target.

A more recent detailed review of the sequence of events leading up to the attack makes clearer how IDF drone units observed confusing and conflicting activity around the WCK aid convoy. At one point, a Hamas terrorist climbed aboard one of the trucks and fired a weapon, possibly signaling his location to other terrorist combatants. The convoy split up and entered a hangar obscuring who entered and exited the vehicles. The IDF attempted to call aid workers on two separate occasions to request identification but got no reply. The purpose of these calls was to identify WCK aid workers and remove them from harm’s way. The IDF then called WCK headquarters, who then called their own workers in the field, likewise receiving no reply.

The strike against WCK occurred at night. In darkness, the color insignia of WCK on top of their vehicles can’t be easily seen by drone cameras. So-called full motion video infrared vision can’t distinguish color well. WCK should have done much more to ensure the IDF could identify their people on the battlefield. And this need not have been exceptionally expensive or time intensive; A common starting point would have been to affix infrared strobe lights to the WCK trucks. Perhaps Jeff Bezos could have donated these for free to Chef Andres; they are available on Amazon.

The IDF, and any similarly situated military force, bears the responsibility of the mistaken targeting. Indeed, the IDF has shown itself to be taking significant precautions to reduce civilian casualties.

But WCK also has duties; it is the duty of WCK, and of any similar NGO, to always maintain contact with military forces in the area, particularly when the battle space is contested. If contact is lost, it falls on WCK workers to return to a previous location where contact was established. It is also imperative that humanitarian transport convoys are easily distinguishable as such, including from drone cameras. It is clear that a convergence of factors tipped an already high risk to tragic levels in this case.

On their website, WCK CEO Erin Gore states “[Israel’s] apologies for the outrageous killing of our colleagues represent cold comfort… It’s cold comfort for the victims’ families and WCK’s global family. Israel needs to take concrete steps to assure the safety of humanitarian aid workers. Our operations remain suspended.” More apologies are owed — from WCK to its own volunteers. The evidence indicates that WCK could have done much more to protect its people on the ground. After all, a chef should know what side his bread is buttered on.

Joel Zivot is a practicing physician in anesthesiology and intensive care medicine and a senior fellow in ethics at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Zivot is a recognized expert who advocates against the use of lethal injection in the death penalty and is against the use of the tools of medicine as an arm of state power. Follow him on “X”/Twitter @joel_zivot

Ruth Oratz is a medical oncologist and Professor of Clinical Medicine at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. She is on the Board of the American Jewish Medical Association and has a background in medical ethics and history. 

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