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Should the new international force be 'neutral' or 'impartial'?

Children play near a site for displaced families at Goz Baida in eastern Chad.
Children play near a site for displaced families at Goz Baida in eastern Chad (David Hecht/IRIN)

A new European Union force and UN mission set to deploy in Chad are mandated to protect aid groups assisting hundreds of thousands of people, amid violence by armed bandits, militias, rebels, soldiers and some foreign fighters. But humanitarian officials in Chad are concerned that if the mission does not remain distinct and separate from relief efforts it risks undermining them.

“Understanding the distinction between the terms ‘neutrality’ and ‘impartiality’ is particularly crucial in this type of conflict,” the head of the International Committee for the Red Cross in Chad, Thomas Merkelbach, told IRIN. Aid officials are airing their concerns in meetings with military advance teams.

Merkelbach said he was struck by how some of the officials he talked with in the European Union force (EUFOR) and the UN mission for the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT) did not seem to appreciate the difference.

“I keep hearing officials using the terms interchangeably,” Merkelbach said, adding that the success or failure of the mission could hinge on officials’ ability to discern between the two and act accordingly.

Neutrality is above all a political concept, he said. As stated in the Red Cross movement statutes neutrality is “to endeavour not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature."

Impartiality, on the other hand, refers to the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Its aim, according to the Red Cross statutes, is “to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress."

The mandate of the international military force coming to Chad is not to ‘relieve suffering’ but to provide protection to humanitarian aid groups so that they can provide the relief more effectively.

Yet Merkelbach and many humanitarian officials IRIN spoke with in Chad said they are concerned that key officials do not understand why it is important to make the distinction.


“Our fear is that we will be associated with EUFOR,” the country head of International Rescue Committee (IRC) Jef Imans told IRIN.

“If some armed groups do not perceive the international force as neutral and those armed groups associate the international force with international humanitarian operations then we may become targets,” he said.

There are reasons armed groups may not perceive EUFOR as neutral. The UN resolution gives it the right to use force in some circumstances, in accordance with Chapter VII of the UN charter. (MINURCAT is a police training and monitoring mission and does not include armed troops.) But more importantly, many of the more than 3,500 troops expected to make up EUFOR will be transferred from a contingent of French troops already based in the former French colony.

The French army told IRIN that it is providing support to the Chadian army “indirectly”. Various rebel groups have also declared war on France.

If EUFOR were to engage rebels it too would be likely to be perceived as pro-government, the programme coordinator of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Philippe Verstraeten told IRIN. “And if the rebels then associate EUFOR with the international humanitarians in eastern Chad then it could much become harder and more dangerous for us to operate”.

Humanitarians fear that they will no longer be accepted by the very people they seek to help, ICRC communications coordinator in Chad Inah Kaloga told IRIN.

That risk - of EUFOR being viewed as neither neutral nor impartial - is why aid workers say it is particularly important that EUFOR refrain from mixing security operations with humanitarian relief.

“That is why we are so insistent on this distinction between what the international military forces do and what we humanitarians do,” Kaloga said.

Several aid officials said that the international military officials they have talked with in Chad have not always understood why. The international military forces often have better logistical support by which to provide water and food to civilians, the IRC representative said. “They may also be eager to do it to win hearts and minds of locals so they are not perceived as enemies.”

Military impartiality

EUFOR made it clear to IRIN that it has no intention of blurring the lines between their security operations and the assistance being given by aid groups.

“We might need to have an airstrip or bridge built for logistical reasons which humanitarians may also end up using,” EUFOR’s head of public information Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Poulain told IRIN. “But our mandate is to provide security and if we succeed at that then that’s all the hearts and minds we need to get the population on our side.”

Still there may be times when the international military are compelled to provide humanitarian assistance, ICRC’s Kaloga said. “Imagine if a EUFOR military patrol comes across civilians and combatants who have been wounded on the battlefield and who urgently need medical attention,” she said.

In moments like that the international force should be compelled to undertake humanitarian action, Kaloga said. “It must act to ‘relieve the suffering’ of the injured and do so impartially no matter from what side the injured come from,” she said.

The larger problem Kaloga points to is that there is always a political dimension to a military mission. “The mission may be led into debate which requires political choices,” she said. “This could make the mission neither neutral nor impartial and we humanitarian groups run the risk of also being politicised if we are too closely associated.”

Neither ‘neutrality’ nor ‘impartiality’ is mentioned in UN Security Council and EU Parliament resolution authorising EUFOR while for ICRC neutrality and impartiality are central to its mandate. “For us they are not just abstract ideas,” Kaloga said, “They are active principles that we apply as a means to an end.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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