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You don’t have to be neutral to be a good humanitarian

‘Neutral humanitarian action is one version of humanitarianism – not the only version.’

Red Cross personnel apply splints to the wounded during World War I Frank Dadd/Wellcome Collection
Red Cross personnel apply splints to the wounded during World War I.

Four principles – humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence – are considered the foundations of humanitarian action. Without them, it is said, aid workers can neither be legitimate, nor effective. 

For too long, it has also been suggested that international organisations should dominate humanitarian action because only they can be truly neutral third parties in war.

It’s time to question these assumptions, especially when racial justice campaigners are rightly demanding that power be relinquished to national humanitarians in whose countries wars are being fought out – and when the COVID-19 pandemic has placed local aid workers even more at the forefront.

At such a moment, it is important to dispel two persistent myths. You don’t have to be neutral to be a good humanitarian; and you don’t have to be an international aid worker to be neutral. 

The neutral humanitarian model that has become so dominant as an international norm today comes largely from the influence of Swiss political ideology. This modern Swiss commitment to neutrality was driven by two men from the same great Genevan family. In 1815, Charles Pictet de Rochemont, a Swiss politician, negotiated international recognition of Switzerland’s political neutrality, so creating the signature value of modern Swiss internationalism. In 1965, Jean Pictet, the senior lawyer at the International Committee of the Red Cross, affirmed humanitarian neutrality as the third of his famous “fundamental principles” for the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

In 1991, humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence were absorbed into UN dogma via General Assembly Resolution 46/182, which also created the UN’s Department of Humanitarian Affairs (today’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA) and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC).

These four “humanitarian principles” have since come to define humanitarian action. The Swiss model of neutral humanitarian practice has been idealised, but, in truth, it is not a model for everyone.

Neutral humanitarian action is one version of humanitarianism – not the only version.

First, political neutrality is not legally required under international humanitarian law. The Geneva Conventions recognise a range of relief providers, most of whom are not politically neutral – and not expected to be neutral – like the parties to conflict, military medics, and civilian associations of various kinds (though the law does require relief to be impartial; support the greatest human need; and not give “definite [military] advantage” to one side).

Second, it is not operationally feasible for many relief organisations who work solely in the territory of one party to a conflict to develop contacts, negotiations, and aid agreements with other parties to a conflict to convince them of their neutrality. It takes a lot of time, money, and diplomatic networks to engage neutrally across a conflict the way the ICRC aims to do. This should not be the expectation we place on all humanitarian actors. Applying this standard to everyone excludes many humanitarians – especially local organisations – who may not have those kinds of resources.

Legally, operationally, and morally, we can take sides and still be humanitarians.

Third, neutral humanitarianism is not necessarily ethically desirable when we see people as enemies for good reasons. Is it reasonable to expect a Syrian aid worker to be neutral while her community is being bombed? Is it moral for humanitarians to stay neutral in the face of injustice or genocide? 

This all means that legally, operationally, and morally, we can take sides and still be humanitarians.

We can be patriotic humanitarians and rebel humanitarians. We can be Islamist humanitarians, communist humanitarians, liberal humanitarians, and anarchist humanitarians. We can be Hindu humanitarians, Jewish humanitarians, Buddhist humanitarians, Catholic humanitarians, Protestant humanitarians, Sunni humanitarians and Shia humanitarians.

There is nothing wrong with having a political view and hoping your side will win. 

We might call this activist humanitarianism, in contrast to neutral humanitarianism. In fact, it is a highly ethical and lawful form of humanitarian commitment, and arguably its original form. 

For example, before World War II, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement did not even subscribe to neutrality. Its national societies were deeply patriotic and wholly identified with their country’s military cause. The same was true for many NGOs and the relief wings of revolutionary movements that provided aid to millions of people during the decolonisation of Africa, starting in the 1950s, and during the Cold War, for instance in Ethiopia and Sudan. 

There is nothing wrong with having a political view and hoping your side will win. 

And when they developed a Code of Conduct in 1994, politically active secular and religious NGOs, and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, rejected the neutral humanitarian model. Article 3 of the Code deliberately makes no mention of neutrality. It affirms that some NGOs will hold firm to political and religious positions but will not make their aid conditional on others holding or adopting their views. Similarly, of course, the ICRC does not insist that combatants and civilians are neutral before it gives them food and medicines.

In today's wars, when access is so contested and big aid agencies are so concerned about their own security, it is often non-neutral community-based humanitarianism that is best placed to save lives, and courageous enough to do so. 

And yet the misguided orthodoxy that all humanitarian action must be neutral – and that only international aid workers can be neutral – de-legitimises locally led aid when it is needed most. 

This narrative comes from both warring parties and global humanitarian agencies alike. The former use it as an excuse to obstruct or attack humanitarian aid in enemy areas for not being neutral. The latter suggest all aid should be neutral – like theirs – in an effort to guard their space, which is under threat from shrinking donor funds and a push for locally driven aid.

This is simply wrong. 

But this is not to say neutrality should be abandoned altogether. There is still a place for formal, neutral humanitarian action. 

People suffering and surviving in war need some professional and neutral humanitarian organisations to work across the lines of conflict, making humanitarian agreements with all parties and protecting the wounded and prisoners on all sides. 

But this isn’t the only legitimate form of aid.

As international humanitarians release more power to local actors, they also need to let go of these false narratives around neutrality. 

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