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Innovation in how we ensure the safety and security of huamanitarian aid workers, human rights defenders, independent journalists and others striving for social and environmental justice is vital as need goes up but funding goes down and governments around the world close down the civic space.

Each year, thousands of ordinary people are killed, injured, kidnapped or arrested while helping people living under war or repression. High-profile attacks against NGO workers in 2016 included the rape and assault of foreign aid workers in Juba by South Sudanese troops in July and the killing of a Syrian humanitarian aid worker and around 20 civilians in an airstrike on an aid convoy in Aleppo in September. Last year, 148 aid workers were arrested in 18 countries according to Insecurity Insight. In 2015, 515 aid workers were killed, injured or kidnapped according to Aid in Danger, and 100 journalists and media staff were killed and 199 journalists imprisoned according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Amnesty International reported that 122 countries tortured or otherwise ill-treated people and that war crimes or other violations of the laws of war were committed in at least 19 countries. In July 2015, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders concluded that the situation for those protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms was worsening. That year was also the deadliest on record for land rights campaigners and environmental defenders according to Global Witness.

For many humanitarians, activists and journalists, these dangers are well understood, and unmitigated risk is simply seen as part of the job. However, Open Briefing seeks to reverse this ‘normalisation of danger’ and help better protect NGO and media workers. There is a major debate within the humanitarian sector over how organisations can safely deliver aid in insecure environments. This debate is relevant to how we can ensure the safety of NGO workers from all sectors when working in complex, hostile or remote environments.

There have been several supposedly watershed moments for NGO safety and security in the last decade or so, including the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003, which killed at least 22 people, including the UN Special Representative; the execution of 17 local humanitarian aid workers working for Action Against Hunger in Sri Lanka in August 2006; the landmark court ruling against the Norwegian Refugee Council after four of its employees were kidnapped in Kenya in June 2012; and the aforementioned attack on the Terrain NGO compound in South Sudan in July 2016, during which South Sudanese troops raped and assaulted foreign aid workers.

While each incident has provoked urgent calls for change, too many organisations still fail to prioritise security risk management or allocate the necessary resources. Where there has been a response from NGOs, it has all too often been an over-reliance on fortification and deterrence, which only places further barriers between those organisations and the communities that they are seeking to help.

Thousands of aid workers, human rights defenders and journalists are killed, injured, kidnapped or arrested each yearClick To Tweet

An alternative approach is built around acceptance, which is a consent-based approach to security risk management. Open Briefing supports such an approach by providing intelligence and security services that recognise and address both the external threats to NGO workers and the internal vulnerabilities that place them at risk, thus freeing them to focus on building acceptance within the communities that they are working with.

As part of this, Open Briefing operates a no weapons policy. We only deploy unarmed security advisers, as we do not wish to add further armed actors into already volatile situations. We believe that humanitarians and aid workers are best secured through the acceptance of local communities, not through fortification and deterrence; fighting fire with fire will not work. All our protective services are intelligence-led and based on preventative strategies and proactive measures. This position was reached after consulting with stakeholders; however, we recognise that civil society needs honest conversations about the use of armed guards, as the present situation of, for example, aid workers relying on UN peacekeepers for protection or journalists being embedded with US or other forces essentially outsources the use of weapons to others. Open Briefing is committed to inspiring and participating in this debate.

Open Briefing is working to foster dialogue, forge creative partnerships and drive transformation in the way that civil society views and uses intelligence and security to effectively assist vulnerable communities in fragile and conflict-affected states while ensuring their own operational security. Specifically, we seek to take the lessons learned and best practices of the humanitarian aid sector and apply them across the NGO community. In order to move from recognition of the problem to invention of creative solutions, our work builds on existing initiatives, including the work of the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF) and Humanitarian Outcome’s Secure Access in Volatile Environments (SAVE) research programme and their NGOs and Risk study and To Stay and Deliver Follow-Up Study. Our work looks beyond the delivery of aid in insecure environments to include how human rights defenders and other civil society actors can benefit from a security risk management approach and the lessons learned by the humanitarian sector.