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Published: January 3, 2024

Access to justice: Aid workers’ overlooked right to legal aid

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This latest blog, written by Camille Delbourgo from Legal Action Worldwide, delves into the overlooked right to legal aid for aid workers. The blog sheds light on the barriers aid workers face in seeking accountability and outlines crucial recommendations, including the improvement of access to free and specialised legal aid for aid workers.

 In 2022, 444 aid workers were injured, kidnapped, or killed worldwide. Among the aid workers working on the front lines trying to deliver life-saving aid, national staff were overwhelmingly the victims and survivors of attacks, and more than half of them were working for national civil society organisations. While the Security Council called for States to take urgent action to protect humanitarian workers, there has been little concrete implementation of these resolutions on the ground. Crucially, very few perpetrators have been held accountable for attacks on humanitarian workers. National aid workers seem to rarely have access to lawyers or national courts, let alone regional and international justice mechanisms. The lack of accountability for attacks serves the perpetrators and sustains the cycle of violence and impunity, impacting not only humanitarian aid workers but also the civilians they support. In this context, Legal Action Worldwide (LAW), with the participation of the Crisis and Support Centre of the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, is delivering independent legal information, advice and representation to aid workers victims of violence or, when appropriate, their families, in Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Central African Republic.  

Given the apparent reluctance of aid workers and their organisations to seek justice, and the limited publicly available information about cases taken to formal courts by humanitarians themselves, LAW undertook ground-breaking research on the barriers they face in holding perpetrators of violence accountable. LAW reviewed 24 reports and guidelines, and interviewed 73 individuals from 43 different organisations, including national and international NGOs operating in South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Central African Republic, donors, and UN Agencies. A survey was taken online by around  30 respondents to this date. On 9 November 2023, 21 key humanitarian actors, representatives from NGOs, the UN, donors and organisations working on the security of aid workers attended a roundtable hosted by LAW in Nairobi, Kenya. The participants discussed the preliminary recommendations emerging from the findings of this research to ensure they would lead to concrete and realistic commitments in order to bring justice to humanitarian workers who are targeted in the course of their work . 

 So why are there so few cases of holding perpetrators accountable for attacks on humanitarian workers? The obstacles identified can be divided into three categories. 

First, respondents often shared the view that the risks of taking legal action are too high, and in any case outweigh the benefits that the victim and their organisation will get out of a formal legal process. In many cases, fear of retaliation against individuals and the organisation as well as fear that the organisation would lose acceptance, and therefore access and funding, are major barriers that prevent humanitarians from seeking legal redress. This is also linked to perceptions that the system does not work, that state actors do not have the capacity to undertake cases, and to the fear that the system would turn against them. 

The second category of barriers is the clear gap in the institutional and individual knowledge of the rights of organisations and their staff members. High turnover, lack of dedicated funding and their specific mandates prevent organisation from feeling  like they will be able to engage with justice institutions and follow up on cases that might take years to settle. They lack knowledge on the criminal and civil legal procedures in the countries where they work, and on the role that lawyers can take to support them. Aid workers are often not aware that while they are specifically protected in international law, they are also protected like any civilian in all domestic legislations. None of the organisations that were consulted had internal procedures or guidelines providing their staff with information on their rights or explaining what to do in the aftermath of an incident, particularly in terms of preserving evidence of the violation or giving their staff access to a lawyer. 

Third, the research showed that aid workers often have the perception that organisations are fully responsible for any incident impacting them in the course of their work. This creates a liability for organisations who are expected to systematically compensate their staff members for the harm suffered, shifting the focus away from the perpetrators of the crime. This leads to the misconception that involving a lawyer will inevitably result in litigation against the organisation, and that the decision to report an incident to the police and pursue formal prosecution of the perpetrators rests solely with the organisation. 

Based on these barriers, LAW drew some preliminary recommendations, which includes the need to improve access to free and specialised legal aid for aid workers. Independent and qualified lawyers can provide legal information to aid workers, represent them throughout judicial proceedings when appropriate, undertake risk assessments and take measures to protect their clients and mitigate the risks. The simple fact of being heard, understanding the legal definition of the harm suffered, and hearing the options available, is already a crucial step in the recovery process of the  victim. Another recommendation is to improve the internal capacity of organisations to develop their legal awareness and corresponding guidelines to better support their staff in seeking justice. Including legal aid in the duty of care package and including potential accountability processes in risk management strategies would also contribute to addressing the obstacles to seeking justice for aid workers. Finally, a coordinated approach between organisations themselves and with donors would contribute to mitigating the risks associated with the accountability processes, such as the targeting of the victims and witnesses and the threats to the organisation’s access. 

 Legal aid is an individual right of victims of crimes, whether an aid worker or not. This is a service that is not questioned in the provision of basic support to gender-based violence victims and survivors and other beneficiaries, and it must not be questioned with regards to aid workers either. LAW has experience representing victims and survivors of human rights violations and abuses in courts in several conflict and post-conflict settings around the world. While international, regional and national justice mechanisms have gaps and present challenges, they remain available to aid workers and valid options to explore to increase the accountability for attacks against aid workers.   

  • The online survey on the perceptions/experience of aid workers on access to justice and barriers is still open. If you are an aid worker, please take the survey here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/PS5H5SD 
  • LAW’s team working on offering legal information, assistance and representation can be contacted directly by organisations and targeted staff or their families at aidworkers@legalactionworldwide.org. LAW will treat all communication confidentially. 


About the author:  

Camille Delbourgo is the Programme Manager of the South Sudan and humanitarian workers programs for Legal Action Worldwide since March 2020. LAW is an independent non-profit organisation comprised of human rights lawyers and jurists working in fragile and conflict affected areas with victims and survivors of human rights violations and abuses. Camille worked as a lawyer in civil and criminal law in France before moving to international criminal law and human rights. Before joining LAW, Camille worked in the office of the Co-Prosecutor within the Extraordinary Chambers in the Cambodian courts, for the Swiss association Civitas Maxima and at the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. She also acquired humanitarian experience within the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent national societies in the Central African Republic and the peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 



Image credit:  UNOCHA/Ahmed Fais


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