This article first appeared in the New York Times, on 26 September 2003.
Arjan Erkel, a humanitarian aid worker in Dagestan, a Russian republic that borders Chechnya, was kidnapped on the night of Aug. 12, 2002. Mr. Erkel, a 33-year-old Dutch citizen who was leading an effort to provide medical services and other assistance in a region ravaged by war and terror, was seized and driven away by three gunmen. It was later learned that he was also being followed by members of the Russian Federal Security Service, the successor to the K.G.B.
The agents tailing him did not intervene to prevent the abduction. Mr. Erkel was the chief of mission in Dagestan for Doctors Without Borders, which was there to assist victims of the conflict in Chechnya. It is not known who kidnapped him, or why. But there is evidence that he may still be alive. Doctors Without Borders is hoping that President Bush will make a personal appeal on Mr. Erkel's behalf to President Vladimir Putin of Russia during their summit meeting at Camp David today and tomorrow.
Pressure from Doctors Without Borders has helped revive the investigation by the Russian government into the kidnapping (it had been shut down in November), and it is now hoped that international pressure on President Putin will lead to an intensified effort to secure Mr. Erkel's release. The American officials who have called for his release include Senators John McCain of Arizona and Joseph Biden of Delaware.
The kidnapping is an example of the tremendous danger humanitarian workers are encountering in many parts of the world. In the most troublesome hot spots, including Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Africa, the danger has become so great that lifesaving services have had to be curtailed. Several organizations, including the United Nations, pulled workers out of Iraq after a car bombing at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad last month killed 22 people, including the chief U.N. representative. A suicide bomber and an
Iraqi guard died in a second attack at the headquarters this week. "In the south of Afghanistan, in areas near Kandahar and Kabul, we cannot send expatriates anymore," said Roger Persichino, desk officer with the group Action Against Hunger. "So we're operating on a very small-scale basis with [Afghan] staff. Following Aug. 19, we're doing the same thing in all of Iraq."
"There's a real fear now," said Ian Levine of Human Rights Watch. "At one time people in aid agency vehicles were allowed to go [unharmed] and were respected because they were doing something that was beyond politics and that was genuinely humanitarian. I think increasingly you get the sense that some warring parties regard humanitarian workers as soft targets. Kidnapping or killing them becomes a way of gaining attention and making a statement." The issue is extremely complex and delicate.
Humanitarian aid workers do not want to be seen as extensions of a government's foreign policy or military action. They are not armed. Under international law, host countries (or occupying powers) are responsible for their safety. But the governments frequently see the aid workers as nuisances, or impediments to political or military initiatives. Attacks on aid workers are seldom solved, and the attackers are seldom brought to justice, even in the most egregious cases.
Russia has shown no eagerness to vigorously investigate the Erkel kidnapping, which is hardly surprising when you consider that government agents watched passively as the man was abducted. The initial (and extremely tepid) investigation was closed in November and would have remained closed if Doctors Without Borders and others had not succeeded in turning the case into an embarrassment for the Putin government. It was reopened in May.
Since then videotapes have reportedly surfaced indicating that Mr. Erkel is alive. Chechnya and, to a lesser extent, Iraq are disaster areas, and the suffering of innocent civilians in both places is profound. More, not less, humanitarian aid is desperately needed. This week's summit meeting is a perfect time for Presidents Bush and Putin to affirm their commitment to the protection of humanitarian workers in the regions for which they are responsible. A real effort to solve the kidnapping of Arjan Erkel would be a welcome gesture of good faith.