When A Humanitarian Convoy is Attacked in Ethiopia, Who is to Blame?

Last week, the World Food Programme confirmed the death of one of its staff members in an ambush on a UN convoy in the resource-rich Somali region of Ethiopia, known as Ogaden.  One other WFP staff member was injured.  In response, the UN temporarily suspended food aid operations in the region.  It is unclear who is responsible for the attack, as the government of Ethiopia and the leadership of the insurgency in Ogaden have each put the blame on the other.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) has been waging a low-level insurgency for independence since 1984.  ONLF accused the government of killing 100 Ogaden civilians in addition to attacking the UN convoy as part of a five-day long raid on the area.  The government has denied this claim, saying that ONLF is responsible for the attack.  Both accusations are difficult to verify because journalists and aid workers cannot move freely in the region.

The suspension of food aid comes at a time when the region is experiencing a drought and food crisis.  A WFP spokeswoman in Addis Ababa told Reuters that the organization was constantly reassessing the situation so that aid operations could be restored.  The WFP provides food assistance to 4.5 million people in Ethiopia in areas where food insecurity is a life-threatening problem.

Farhan Hamsa, the WFP driver who was killed in the attack, had worked for WFP in the region since 2006 and leaves behind a wife and seven children.  In a statement issued the day after the attack, WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said, “Humanitarian workers need and deserve the protection of all as they seek to protect the vulnerable and save innocent lives… Every day WFP drivers like Farhan deliver life-saving help to the most vulnerable under conditions of great danger and hardship.”

The attack on the WFP is indicative of the growing post Cold War perception of many parties to conflicts that the UN in general is either not a neutral actor— such as when a belligerent conflates humanitarian branches of the UN with the Security Council or a particular power on it— or as a legitimate proxy target.  For example, it seems plausible that the WFP could have been a target of either ONLF or the Ethiopian government if the convoy was seen as being on its way to aid civilian populations that were thought to be support bases for their respective antagonists.

But it seems unlikely that ONLF would want to tarnish its international reputation by attacking a humanitarian convoy in its own territory, regardless of where the aid was going, if it truly wishes to eventually seek recognition as an independent state on the international stage.  In either case, the attack indicates that protection of humanitarian aid workers in conflict zones remains a grave concern.

As of Thursday May 19, two WFP staff members are still missing following the attack on the convoy.