Humanitarian idealists in the line of fire

Cruel facts of life in brutal world
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The killing of six International Red Cross staff in Chechnya has spurred new efforts to draw up rules to protect vulnerable people working for humanitarian organisations.

At present, there is no common database listing who is doing what and where. Some of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are large, highly professional groups. Others are small and well-meaning but sometimes naive, and vulnerable to casualties from drugged, drunken gunmen or road accidents. But, as the Chechen massacre shows, even the professionals are not always safe.

The people who work in the field are mainly young - in their twenties and thirties. Many are medically trained, but there are also logisticians, engineers, even architects, like one of the Red Cross workers killed in Chechnya. They work hard and play hard. They are, perhaps, the modern equivalent of volunteers who went to Spain and fought in the civil war.

The proliferation of agencies has given rise to demands for regulation, both for their own protection and to avoid duplication of skills. British Overseas NGOs for Development - Bond - has 145 agencies based in the UK registered as members. A new project, People in Aid, is trying to promote a code of practice, to be published next year which would facilitate greater co-ordination between NGOs. The draft code of practice stresses that individual workers are the key, that field staff must be consulted by management, and that they should be given the best training and support. The last principle is security.

"The work of relief and development agencies often places great demands on staff in conditions of complexity and risk," the code says - something of an understatement.

The greatest concentration of NGOs in recent years has been in Bosnia, because it has been prominent in the media and is relatively easy to reach. Conditions away from the immediate battlefronts were relatively civilised. Only the bigger, more professional organisations have operated in the much more demanding conditions of the former Soviet Union, Somalia, central Africa and Cambodia.

The Red Cross, which lost six workers in Chechnya - the worst massacre in its 132-year history - on Tuesday morning was the orignial NGO. Henri Dunant, its Swiss businessman founder, hastening to do business with Napoleon III of France, stumbled on the dreadful aftermath of the Battle of Solferino in June, 1859, when French and Austrian armies had collided in northern Italy.

He organised emergency aid services for the wounded of both sides and later proposed the formation of voluntary relief societies in his book, Un Souvenir de Solferino, of 1862.

The Red Cross, jealous of its independence, is the NGO most associated with operating in war zones. Its prime duties are protection of prisoners of war and civilians in time of war, and it acts as an intermediary between warring states or warring parties within a country.

The only agencies operating in Chechnya were the ICRC, Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), and the British agency, Merlin (Medical Emergency Relief International). All pulled their teams out of Chechnya yesterday, though they remained in neighbouring republics.

MSF typifies the front-line aid agencies, concentrating on the areas where war casualties are highest. In July, it had 85 expatriate staff and 526 local staff in Afghanistan: corresponding figures in other hot spots were 92 and 1,300 in Liberia; 71 and 17,40 in Burundi; 86 and 794 in Angola; 111 and 1,429 in Rwanda; and 89 and 878 in Zaire.

NGOs often work under the umbrella of the UN, usually the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but also the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, the World Health Organisation and the World Food Programme.

Britain's Overseas Development Agency (ODA) also plays an active role in the field. ODA drivers trucked aid to central Bosnia and Sarajevo throughout the civil war. In the past three years, most of Britain's emergency aid has gone to the states of the former Yugoslavia - pounds 38m last year, followed by Angola and Rwanda. Overall, most emergency aid - 46 per cent - goes to Africa.