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Georgieva: 'More respect for international law in armed conflict'

World Humanitarian Day on August 19 aims to raise awareness of the attacks on humanitarian personnel in conflict zones. EU commissioner Kristalina Georgieva calls for more cooperation in tackling the problem.

DW: Many would say that World Humanitarian Day is one of the many commemorative days that exist and are unnecessary. Why do you think it is important?

Kristalina Georgieva: For employees of aid organizations who risk their own lives to help others it's a very important day. It reminds us of a tragedy from 10 years ago that we should never forget: the attack on the UN mission in Baghdad. On that day, 22 UN members lost their lives, including the Special Representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Everyone who knew him remembered him as a person with a great heart. He was always passionate about the cause he promoted.

When humanitarian aid workers are killed, it's not only a tragedy for their families but also for thousands of people who are left without help, without medical assistance, without food, without shelter and without hope. And in an increasingly fragile world torn apart by dramatic conflicts and affected by natural disasters caused by climate change, we need to value solidarity. And we need to value the people who are the pillars of this solidarity.

In your opinion, what are the reasons for the increasing number of attacks on aid workers in many countries?

The number of wars in the traditional sense is not getting bigger, but unfortunately there are more armed conflicts. There were 200 last year alone. More and more countries are finding themselves caught up in long-lasting crisis situations. Just think of Darfur, where the situation is deteriorating, or Afghanistan, which continues to be the most dangerous country for humanitarian aid workers. And Mother Nature adds her own catastrophes to the mix: in the last three decades we have seen the rate of natural disasters increase fivefold.

These circumstances make the aid workers' task extremely hard. Nearly 900 have lost their lives in the past 10 years, while 1,500 have been injured or kidnapped. This means that as an occupational category they are in more danger than UN peacekeeping troops. And this increased exposure to danger is exactly why humanitarian law needs to be respected - so that aid workers can get to those who need them.

Syria has become a country where aid organization workers are suffering attacks. Several European nations have called for supplying Syria's rebels with weapons. Do you see it as problematic that there is such a division of opinion within the EU and that some countries are taking sides?

In Syria, attacks on aid workers are the order of the day. So far, 28 people have lost their lives. Many others have been injured or kidnapped. And what's even more tragic is that despite attacks on doctors, Red Cross and Red Crescent ambulances, the UN Security Council has not issued a resolution on this.

I would really like to see all countries addressing this topic, because it's not just about Syria. If we allow hard-won international law to be ignored in armed conflicts, it will mean that in other conflicts people can say, "Why shouldn't we shoot at ambulances? Why shouldn't we kill doctors?" And I am really worried about the fact that we still don't speak with one voice as far as this is concerned. As for supporting different sides in the conflict, I don't wish to comment.

An injured Syrian man is wheeled on a stretcher by Lebanese Red Cross medical personnel (Photo: AFP/GettyImages)

Attacks on aid workers are common in Syria

It is also important to us that we keep out of politics in order to protect the neutrality, non-partisan position and independence of aid workers. And I can tell you that this is still the best protection we can offer workers in a conflict zone. I am grateful that Europeans, despite economic problems in their own countries, are so generous. So far we have managed to raise 1.3 billion euros ($1.7 billion) in humanitarian aid in EU member states and via the European Commission. This is by far the largest contribution in the world, and we are going to do even more. I would like us to also focus more on the topic of respecting humanitarian law.

But what can the European Union really do to stop these attacks on aid workers? Apart from appealing to the warring parties, it can't really do much, can it?

Surprisingly, we can actually do more. Because we intentionally stay out of the political debate, we're in the position, as the humanitarian branch of the European Commission, to deliver more help to Syria through negotiations together with support from east to west, from Russia to the Gulf states.

At first, no international aid organization was permitted to work in Syria, and now there are 12. All UN organizations with a humanitarian cause may now operate in Syria. We may not yet be where we want to be, but if we weren't able to speak with the neutral voice of humanity, the aid that's currently pouring in would not have been possible. Around three million people in Syria are currently receiving food. We've also been able to supply 10 million Syrians with clean drinking water together with the United Nations Children's Fund. This unfortunately only satisfies one-third of the demand - but without neutrality even this help would not have been possible.

Kristalina Georgieva was born in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1953. She is an economist and politician, currently serving as European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response in the European Commission under Jose Manuel Barroso.

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