Aid agencies win NATO concession on vehicle markings

International forces under NATO command in Afghanistan will stop using white vehicles from 1 June in response to calls from NGOs for clearer markings to distinguish between civilian and military vehicles.



“All NATO-owned vehicles that are coloured white only are to have that colour changed… to a degree sufficient to render the vehicle clearly and obviously multi-coloured,” said a NATO policy statement issued by Marco Bertolini, chief of staff of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).



“For NATO-owned vehicles, measures are being taken to ensure that the vehicles are clearly and obviously NATO,” Anthony Lutz, an ISAF spokesman, told IRIN.



Agreement on this was reached after months of strong lobbying by mostly international aid agencies which have accused NATO/ISAF of deliberately using white vehicles to get greater protection.



“As some of the largest non-governmental, not-for-profit humanitarian organizations delivering essential relief to vulnerable Afghans, we wish to bring to your attention the urgent need for NATO forces to clearly distinguish themselves from civilians in Afghanistan and to support respect and protection of humanitarian workers by not using white vehicles for transporting military personnel and for military activities,” said a letter sent by over a dozen international NGOs to the NATO secretary-general in April.



The UN Security Council authorized the creation of ISAF through Resolution 1386 - initially to help ensure security in Kabul, and in August 2003 NATO took over command of ISAF. NATO/ISAF had about 58,000 troops from 42 contributing nations in April 2009, according to an ISAF leaflet.



Colour of impartiality



NGOs say white four-wheel-drive vehicles have traditionally been used by the UN and aid agencies in conflict zones to distinguish themselves from the military.



“The white colour has come to represent impartiality and independence, and those who seek to provide aid on the basis of need,” Ashley Jackson, Oxfam’s communications officer, told IRIN.



“When the military use white vehicles this undermines aid workers’ identity and can make it easier for us to be confused with the military, which can worsen our security and our access to the communities who need our vital services,” Ingrid Macdonald, protection and advocacy manager of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), told IRIN in Kabul.



Armed attacks on NGOs increased by about 40 percent in 2008 and dozens of aid workers were killed, kidnapped and wounded across Afghanistan, according to NRC and Oxfam.



Worsening insecurity has also impeded access to large swathes of the country, particularly in the volatile south and southeast, where many people are believed to be in need of humanitarian aid.



“If we cannot guarantee the safety of our staff, we cannot provide assistance to Afghans in conflict areas - and ultimately, they are the ones who will suffer,” said Oxfam’s Jackson.



Still room for confusion?



NATO’s new policy regarding the use of white vehicles will not apply to thousands of US troops operating beyond the writ of NATO/ISAF and engaged mainly in counter-insurgency and “anti-terrorism” military activities.



“Operators of non-NATO/ISAF vehicles are encouraged to comply with this also - although this is a national matter for each contributing nation’s consideration,” said Lutz of ISAF.



NGOs say the use of white vehicles by military forces and for military purposes would be a violation of the modus operandi agreed between aid agencies and the military in August 2008.



“Under international humanitarian law, combatants are required to distinguish themselves from civilians in conflict,” said Oxfam’s Jackson.



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