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Freed Belgian aid worker sets up fund to ‘protect the protecters’

Freed Belgian aid worker sets up fund to ‘protect the protecters’

by host
Freed Belgian aid worker sets up fund to ‘protect the protecters’

During his 455 days in an Iranian prison, Olivier Vandecasteele had a eureka moment.

Throughout his career as an aid worker in India, Mali, Afghanistan and Iran, Vandecasteele struggled with the lack of legal, medical and mental health support for aid workers, especially local staff, he said. But it wasn’t until he was imprisoned by Iran that he thought of turning to action.

“When you don’t have much to cling to, you cling onto your values, which is the fact that … I had nothing to do with the problem between Iran and Belgium. A person who has done humanitarian aid work should to a certain degree be protected.”

Vandecasteele was arrested while on a visit to Iran in February 2022. He was later sentenced to 40 years in prison on four different charges: spying on Iran, cooperating with the U.S. against Iran, currency smuggling, and money laundering. Belgium’s then Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne described the charges as “fabricated.”

Vandecasteele was considered a victim of Iran’s hostage diplomacy, which it utilizes to try and obtain concessions from the West (the latest example is Johan Floderus, a Swedish citizen who works for the European External Action Service and is in jail on espionage charges).

After more than a year in prison, Vandecasteele was part of a prisoner swap in May last year between Belgium and Iran, with convicted terrorist Assadollah Assadi going to Tehran. After Assadi was sent back, Iran also released three other imprisoned Europeans. An Iranian political opposition movement in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, strongly condemned the deal.

Demonstrators rally to call for Olivier Vandecasteele’s liberation in January 2023 | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

Vandecasteele is now partnering with the Belgian King Baudouin Foundation to set up an alliance called Protect Humanitarians. The goal is to advocate for humanitarian aid workers in need and to create a fund to support such workers with legal, medical or mental health assistance.

In 2022, around 460 humanitarian aid workers were killed, wounded or kidnapped while doing their jobs. The number for last year is set to surpass 500. But an overarching organization to help them, by doing advocacy work and providing financial and legal help for aid workers in trouble, has so far not existed, as far as Vandecasteele knows.

“This is a public issue,” he said. “The fact that an increasing number of humanitarians are killed, wounded and kidnapped globally should not just be an issue of concern for the sector, but to anyone who shares an interest in what our sector calls the principle of humanity.”

Vandecasteele said that “one of the key things that made me stay strong in difficult times was the fact that I believed what I’ve done and in the values of the humanitarian sector.”

Now, Vandecasteele wants to use that experience to help others. He said that while the project was not “100 percent initiated while I was detained, it’s there that I had this Eureka moment of saying, ‘This does not exist and maybe as a community, we can do better.’”

In Belgium, a massive campaign called “Free Olivier Vandecasteele” advocated for his return, attracting wide media attention and with banners and posters put up across the country.

Vandecasteele said it was important to know how much he was supported, including by aid worker colleagues. “When something happens to you that doesn’t make sense you have to put it in a perspective that you’re not the only one.”

By taking this initiative, Vandecasteele hopes “to plant a seed that one day will become a strong tree that will protect, unfortunately, more and more people that are affected by aggression.”

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