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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The construction of the humanitarian worker as inviolate actor Leclerc-Gagné, Elise


“How is it that there is such a concern for the security of humanitarian workers?” A glance at the legal, policy, humanitarian, academic and business spheres reveals a widespread and strong commitment to the security of humanitarian workers. While it may appear obvious that these actors should not be victims of security incidents, upon scrutiny, the prominence of this notion – which I term the “norm of humanitarian security” – is surprising. Concern for the security of humanitarian workers is startling considering the enduring ambiguity of what or who humanitarian workers are, and the fact that these actors perform work that has, for years, faced serious critiques. In view of this state of affairs, this dissertation asks: “how is it that humanitarian workers came to be perceived as inviolate actors?” I attend to this question by tracing a genealogy of the norm of humanitarian security. After outlining the emergence of the humanitarian worker as actor, I show how the norm of humanitarian security developed and gained prominence in the 1990s. I argue that this development was greatly informed by states’ commitment to the delivery of humanitarian assistance to which the security of humanitarian workers was perceived as central. States’ changing paradigm of engagement in humanitarian affairs in the post-2001 period contributed to the norm of humanitarian security becoming a stand-alone norm. This occasioned a shift in which violations of the norm went from being portrayed as problematic owing to their impact on the delivery of humanitarian assistance, to being perceived as problematic in and of themselves. This research makes an important contribution to the literature on norms – by providing the first study of the norm of humanitarian security; the literature on humanitarianism – by shedding light on the evolution of the notion of humanitarian worker and showing the interplay between the evolution of the humanitarian sphere and the humanitarian worker; and to the literature on the security of humanitarian workers – by providing a historically situated account of its object of study.

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