Humanitarian organizations operate on the principle of humanity, neutrality and impartiality developed by Henry Dunant in 1859. The goal of the principle was to protect relief agencies and their personnel from interference and violence while carrying out their mandate. These principles not only form the basis on which they operate but also define the role of humanitarian organizations. Humanity ensures that victims of disasters are provided with aid and assistance in order to reduce their suffering, this is done irrespective of their geographical location. Neutrality ensures that humanitarian organizations do not take sides when delivering aid and assistance. In essence, when aid organizations intervene during a crisis, they are expected not to form any kind of affiliations or allegiance with any group in a conflict. While, impartiality discourages discrimination, thus ensuring that aid and assistance is given based on the urgency of the need but not for political reasons or nepotism.
The concept of Humanitarian space was first used by United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR) during the cold war in Central America. It is described as an operating environment in which the right of populations to receive protection and assistance is upheld, and aid agencies can carry out their mandate freely, by responding to the need of their beneficiaries in an impartial and independent way. For the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), humanitarian space has its foundation on International humanitarian law (IHL), while for UNHCR, the term is defined based on international refugee law. Humanitarian space has also
been described to exist in a physical and virtual sense. In the virtual sense, the humanitarian space serves to protect humanitarian organizations and ensure they remain ethical. While in the physical sense, it denotes a zone free of strife. In recent times, there is a discuss amongst humanitarian actors that humanitarian space is shrinking, because of the increased attacks on aid workers especially those that operate in society experiencing social change or an armed conflict.
Establishing and maintaining humanitarian space during a crisis is quite difficult and challenging, especially during armed conflicts. There is a general belief among humanitarian actors that humanitarian space is decreasing, in other words the principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality is not being respected during crisis. The decline in humanitarian space are indicative in the increasing attack of aid workers, politicization of aid, lack of respect for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the inability to reach those in need of humanitarian aid.
According to the United Nations Interagency Standing Committee, insecurity of Aid workers is one of the major indicators of shrinking humanitarian space. While all forms of attacks against aid workers have increased as stated earlier, abductions of aid workers have considerably increased in the past decade. There were 11 recorded cases of kidnappings in 2000 to 92 in 2012. Although the reason for most attacks on aid workers are largely unknown, the militarization and politicization of humanitarian aid has been attributed as some of the major reasons for the increasing attacks on aid worker. Humanitarian actors should operate in isolation from politics.
Another important factor for the increasing attacks on aid works is perception of lack of independence between Aid workers and their donors, because Aid organizations rely on donors to finance their projects. Donors are sometimes linked to a crisis and try to use their donation to gain political advantage or promote their agenda. Humanitarian organizations that are financed by such donor with ulterior motives, could affect the perception of these organization as being affiliated with that particular donor.
Though humanitarian organizations are supposed to be seen as impartial and independent actors, as a result of this are viewed as proxy targets because they are seen as apparatus used to promote Western agenda, for example, The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carried out a covert operation in Pakistan under the guise of conducting a hepatitis campaign to hunt and gather information on Osama Bin Laden.
Although, this type of incidence does not explain attacks on humanitarians, it does however puts many aid organizations at risk, as any recklessness or contentious act by one aid organization could affect all others operating in that area at risk, changing how all other aid agencies are perceived. The overall effects of these attacks, has led to the subsequent suspension of humanitarian aid in conflict areas due to security concerns especially where attacks are prevalent or go unabated, this consequently means that less people in need of aid and assistance will be served. For instance, in April 2007, several humanitarian organizations such as Oxfam and Triangle working in Darfur temporarily stopped operations stating the increasing violence on aid workers in the area, as a result almost 100,000 vulnerable people were affected.
Others factors that have been attributed to the decreasing humanitarian space include:
(1) The blurred distinction between the roles of the military and humanitarian organizations;
(2) Close Alignment of Humanitarian actors with the Military.
(4) Political manipulation by occupying powers and other de facto authorities‘ of humanitarian assistance and actors;
(5) Perceived specific social, cultural, and religious agenda by humanitarian workers, Just to mention a few.
In order to improve the security of humanitarian workers, aid organizations need to take a firm stand on security. Practices that will reduce the vulnerability of aid workers to attacks should be adopted. The ‗security triangle‘ model of acceptance, protection and deterrence should be the basis of humanitarian organizations security strategy. Furthermore, those who perpetuate acts of violence on aid workers should be prosecuted and also efforts should be made to ensure that the lines between humanitarian, military and political lines are not blurred. Aid agencies need to promote their image as a neutral organization, they must not be affiliated with any group in a conflict and their operations should be based solely on the needs of the key stakeholders.