MYANMAR: Let’s make 2022 the year in which the trend of growing violence and impunity is finally reversed  

The deaths of two of our colleagues in an attack by the Myanmar military has devastated everyone at Save the Children. Our colleagues as well as at least 35 other people killed in the attack, including four children, are #NotATarget and we cannot let this tragedy be in vain, says Save the Children's Global Humanitarian Director Gabriella Waaijman.

Our staff, aged 28 and 32 and both new fathers with babies just a few months old, were returning to the office on Dec. 24 after attending to the needs of children in eastern Myanmar when the attack took place in Kayah State. The military forced people from their cars, arrested some, killed many and burnt their bodies, including four children.

All staff at Save the Children – about 24,000 in about 120 countries - were informed on Christmas Day of the attack and the fears for our missing colleagues. When their deaths were officially confirmed two days later, we wept as if we had lost two family members. We had, because we are a family.

I have worked in the humanitarian sector for over 20 years and met hundreds, if not thousands, of fellow aid workers in that time. We form a close bond with each other, fostered while working under extremely challenging conditions. Most of the people that I have worked with are dedicated to their work and share a passion to improve the lives of people caught up in unimaginable suffering. We have witnessed devastation and heard stories too gruesome to repeat. But time and again we are amazed at people’s resilience in times of disaster.

I recently returned from Afghanistan where, I met a displaced family who were temporarily living in a cleared out granary belonging to a family member. It was cold and damp and the winter was starting to set in. They had preciously little. Their son was attending the community school supported by Save, catering for displaced children. He was learning how to read, but was struggling because lack of food gave him headaches. Nonetheless, he proudly showed me his skills, declaring he wanted to be a doctor to help take care of his people.

It is often hard to explain to family and friends exactly how people survive under such difficult conditions and how they can continue to hope for a better future. We are privileged. We are in a position in which we can help. We can make a difference, sometimes small and sometimes at large scale.

Our sector has also rightfully drawn criticism over the last few years, with its reputation damaged by a series of high-profile scandals involving people who should be before the courts. But the fast majority of aid workers believe in solidarity with those that are less privileged and work hard to support those in need. Unfortunately, they face increased risk doing so.

And whilst the dangers aid workers face is nothing compared to what civilians in countries like Myanmar are facing on a daily basis. The main database for attacks on the world’s estimated 570,000 aid workers, the Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD), shows that the number of casualties was at an all-time high in 2020 at 484, with 117 people killed, 242 inured and 125 kidnapped. Every year since 2013, more than 100 humanitarian workers have been killed and in 2020 criminality exceeded conflict-related violence in aid worker attacks for the first time.

The database shows that humanitarian workers were shot, beaten, faced shelling, explosives and aerial bombardment. I know many colleagues who carry the long-term scars of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to their work. Organisations such as ours provide counselling for staff while also reacting to the increasing threats though risk assessments, special equipment, training and security protocols.

But you have to question why these numbers continue to increase when the sanctity of humanitarianism is recognised by all cultures and religions. The protection of aid workers is also  enshrined in specific provisions such as the Geneva Conventions on international humanitarian law, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, UN Security Council Resolutions, and national criminal laws.

If we accept a growing culture of impunity with only rare prosecutions and sanctions for violations of humanitarian laws, we let perpetrators off the hook. This is a risk to aid workers, but even more so to the people caught up in the conflict and whom the international community has an equal duty to protect.

With this latest attack on innocent civilians, children and aid workers, now is the time to join forces and to take a stand and set an example.

The United Nations Security Council should immediately convene and set out the steps they will take to hold those responsible to account in Myanmar. Member states should impose an arms embargo. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) must also convene to review and action a five-point consensus agreed in April, which states that there shall be an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and for the ASEAN Special Envoy to help mediate a diplomatic solution. 

For the sake of our two beloved and irreplaceable colleagues in Myanmar – and the other 1,170 plus aid workers killed in the past 10 years and for the sake of the millions of people we have  duty to protect – we must act now. Let’s make 2022 the year in which the trend of growing violence and impunity is finally reversed.