Recent video footage showing British aid worker Paul Urey wearing handcuffs has sparked outrage in the UK. The 45-year-old from Warrington in Cheshire made several comments critical of the UK media’s reporting of the invasion, which his mother dismissed as her son “not acting in his natural way”, implying some manner of duress. But his abduction, along with fellow aid worker Dylan Healy, 22, is a direct breach of international humanitarian law.
Our research with international humanitarian organizations (IHOs) working in war zones suggests that, unfortunately, such disregard for the protected status of aid workers is increasing.
This problem is more widespread in conflicts we have classified in our research as “globally oriented conflicts” – meaning that the stakes are so high that multiple countries, often with strong military power, are drawn in. The conflict in Ukraine, though unique in some ways, falls under this category of conflicts.
In this type of conflict, it’s not uncommon for one or another of the warring parties to extend their suspicion of the motives of western governments to those of western IHOs. This has led to aid workers being accused of spying. These accusations are most often invented – although very occasionally there is substance to them.
Over the years, this has led to a worrying trend of attacks against Western aid workers. Sometimes they are abducted as bargaining chips or to make political statements. In the case of Urey and captured British fighters Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin, it appears to be both. All three have appeared on state television making what appear to be scripted statements, critical of the west and requesting a prisoner swap.
To be clear, abductions are also a problem in other conflicts we have studied where non-western aid workers face almost certain death if they are captured.
IHOs now realize the painful truth that their protected status granted by international humanitarian law is no longer sufficient to protect their staff in globally oriented conflicts. The question of how to operate safely in such conflicts weighs heavily on every IHO decision-maker’s mind.