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Ordinary people are risking their lives every day to protect vulnerable communities and a fragile environment within an increasingly restricted civic space. 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. In 2015, 515 aid workers were reported killed, injured or kidnapped by Aid in Danger, and 100 journalists and media staff were killed according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which also reported that 199 journalists had been imprisoned that year. 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.

NGOs and board members are increasingly aware of their legal duty of care obligations to their employees following the 2015 Dennis vs. Norwegian Refugee Council case and an earlier landmark case against Samaritan’s Purse (see below). However, the danger is that organisations will either become too risk adverse or simply adopt a ‘tick box’ approach to security risk management. We seek to challenge both responses, as neither will ensure the safe and effective delivery of programmes to those in need.

The danger is that NGOs will either become too risk adverse or simply adopt a 'tick box' approach to security risk managementClick To Tweet

With the support of our intelligence, training and equipment units, the aid workers and others we work with should be safe, but unforeseen or unavoidable security and medical threats do arise in the field, and our security unit means we can respond effectively when they do, including with remote medical support (by telephone or internet) and extraction and evacuation via our emergency response teams. Informed directly by the work of our innovation unit, we develop and deliver appropriate security services that address both the external threats to NGO workers and the internal vulnerabilities that place them at risk of violence. We ensure our client’s security in the widest sense as well as providing the full range of security risk mitigation services, including unarmed security advisers, site security audits, cyber security audits and counter-surveillance measures. 

Such services are also of great assistance to human rights defenders, journalists and political activists who face persecution and state violence and are consistently targeted by security services. They cannot afford commercial security advice and obviously cannot turn to the police for protection. By developing networks of skills-based volunteers and building relationships with trusted partners, Open Briefing can meet those needs cost effectively.

We believe that humanitarians and other NGO workers are best secured through the acceptance of local communities, not through fortification and deterrence. All our protective services are therefore intelligence-led and based on preventative strategies and proactive measures rather than violent reactive responses. 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.

Dennis vs. Norwegian Refugee Council

On 29 June 2012, five employees of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) were shot when their convoy was ambushed while travelling in the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya. The driver, Abdi Ali, was killed, and aid worker Steve Dennis and three of his colleagues were wounded and kidnapped. The hostages were freed four days later in an armed rescue operation by pro-Kenyan government Somali militia.

In the aftermath, Dennis challenged the adequacy of NRC’s response and the level of accountability and transparency in its investigation of the incident. Three years later, Dennis submitted a claim against the NRC at the Oslo District Court. On 25 November 2015, the court found that the NRC had acted with gross negligence, and ruled that the organisation was liable for compensation.

This followed a 2011 case in which a programme manager for the evangelical Christian relief organisation Samaritan’s Purse, Flavia Wagner, sued the organisation and the crisis-management consultancy it used for their failings before and during the three months she was held captive in the Darfur region of Sudan in 2010.

The European Interagency Security Forum has examined the Dennis vs. NRC case, and urges the humanitarian sector to learn the following lessons, which apply equally to all NGOs sending staff into high-risk environments:

  • duty of care is a legal obligation that NGOs must adhere to, and to the same standard as any other employer;
  • informed consent is a vital component of duty of care in high-risk environments;
  • NGOs should institute stronger security risk management procedures rather than becoming more risk adverse;
  • mitigation measures must be proportionate to the risk; and
  • a security incident may be beyond an organisation’s control, but how it manages it is not.

These are the very principles that drive Open Briefing’s work in this area, and we are committed to helping all NGOs develop and implement appropriate security risk management procedures in light of this landmark case.