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Readers React | Should humanitarian aid always be neutral?

Is this humanitarian principle a fallacy or a necessity? Here’s what you had to say.

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We recently published a commentary by the former policy chief at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), academic and ethicist Hugo Slim, arguing that you don’t have to be neutral to be a good humanitarian. 

As part of our series on #RethinkingHumanitarianism, his opinion challenged one of the four principles long considered sacrosanct in the emergency response sector: Humanitarian aid workers must not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious, or ideological nature. 

His commentary also provoked a number of reactions from readers. Here’s a selection of thoughts you emailed us or posted on social media, on both sides of the debate. 

In support of neutrality 

“The neutrality of humanitarian action must not be a casualty in the campaign for a more inclusive humanitarian system.”

Slim’s article on 27 August 2020 encouraged the aid sector to let go of ‘false narratives’ that humanitarian action must be neutral. Pushing for a humanitarian system that is more inclusive of local organisations, he does so for noble reasons, but the argument throws the baby out with the bathwater! It needs some nuancing.

After five years working on the humanitarian response in Afghanistan, I can attest to the intrinsic importance of neutrality and counter-argue that it needs to be nurtured, not undermined. After months of negotiations in forgotten corners of the country, the Taliban told us: “You can work here to help people, even with American money – you won’t be harmed. But if you come here and work to support the ‘illegitimate government’, then you have no protection.” It was a straightforward ultimatum – demanding neutrality of us. 

But many aid organisations (including local organisations and UN agencies) were co-opted into the state-building agenda in Afghanistan, whilst its embattled government defended against an insurgency. Implicitly, they took a side.

The Taliban’s threat was certainly not hypothetical: Over the past five years, 192 aid workers in Afghanistan have been killed, wounded, or kidnapped (not all at the hands of the Taliban). 

This bias towards the state also resulted in aid efforts crystallising around government-controlled areas, structurally neglecting people in need in (the expanding) non-government-controlled areas. The UN-led coordinated system slept-walked into a mostly non-neutral response, predominantly in government-controlled areas. If you happened to live in an area not controlled by or sympathetic to the government, it was unlikely that humanitarians would even hear or see you. With the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), we pushed hard over some years to help rebalance this.

Despite the premise of Slim’s article, fewer and fewer organisations operate in a neutral manner despite their humanitarian banner. This is a risk. Remaining a neutral third party amid warring factions is necessary for a humanitarian response. We need to keep striving for a humanitarian system that can access human suffering and abuse in a war – wherever it is, not just for particular sides or groups. The neutrality of humanitarian action must not be a casualty in the campaign for a more inclusive humanitarian system.

William Carter

Khartoum, Sudan

It would probably mark the end of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement if we were to stop being neutral. Because of the neutrality principle, we’re able to work with both sides, addressing the needs of the most vulnerable with trust.

Brian Bilal Mwebaze Kanaahe

Mbarara, Uganda

“Is it reasonable to expect a Syrian aid worker to be neutral while her community is being bombed?” If she’s part of the Red Crescent, sure it is. That’s why members from the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement are accepted even on the enemy’s side. That’s one of the fundamental pillars of trust.

Ilwana Klinke

Switzerland

“There is nothing wrong with having a political view”, but there are many wrongs when local humanitarian aid through a local group was selectively extended to recipients based on their sect (a recent example from Beirut). In these cases, neutrality is a paramount principle to protect.

Rima W.

Washington, DC

Neutrality in the simple sense of not taking sides in a conflict isn’t something that should be reserved for the ICRC. Locally led and community-based humanitarianism can be neutral, and neutral humanitarianism can be liberal, communist, Islamist, and the rest of the rhetorical flourishes. And as international humanitarians release more power to local actors, they shouldn’t set themselves up as the only actors able to work across lines of conflict.

Paul Harvey

Brighton, England

Thumbs up on the idea of humanitarian activism. But to be “humanitarian” an activist needs to see the humanity in the “other side”, be ready to alleviate the suffering of the “enemy” in need. In polarised settings, can we be impartial without at least striving to be neutral?

Filipa Guinote

Geneva, Switzerland

There is certainly no need for aid to be international but definitely the need to be neutral. What I learned in more than two decades working in wars on the ground: Neutrality is not perfect, but taking sides is worse and breeds inequality of access, favouritism, turning a blind eye to abuses, and covering up abuses.

Donatella Rovera

I wonder why Hugo needs to characterise extremely patriotic humanitarianism from pre-WWII as a success story, while most historians have typically identified this type of work as woefully inadequate and highly exclusionary?

Boyd van Dijk

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

In support of activist aid

“To instrumentalise the principle of neutrality by not challenging deliberate or incidental harm is to be complicit in undermining humanitarian values.”

Few aid workers, if any, would dispute Hugo Slim’s thesis that “you don’t have to be neutral to be a good humanitarian”. In my experience as a longtime humanitarian practitioner, ‘neutrality’ is merely a means to give effect to the principles of humanity and impartiality.

The utility of being neutral – being equidistant from all warring parties and abusive power-holders – is largely determined by the political context. It is not necessary for all humanitarian entities to work cross-line or cross-border.

During crises, it’s clear that frontline groups have particular advantages over external actors, given their insider knowledge – often fundamental to negotiating access and negating efforts to instrumentalise humanitarian endeavour. At the same time, it’s obvious that ‘neutrality’ cannot be an excuse for indifference towards well-known patterns of harm: gender-based violence, the slaughter of civilians, deliberate starvation, sieges, use of child soldiers, or criminalisation of asylum seekers – to name just a few of the horrors of contemporary times. To instrumentalise the principle of neutrality by not challenging deliberate or incidental harm is to be complicit in undermining humanitarian values. It also means not being an effective or ‘good’ humanitarian

Norah Niland

Geneva, Switzerland

Some of us have been saying this for a while now but been told to stop questioning neutrality because we are ‘undermining the mission’. How can I be neutral as a humanitarian in the face of gross injustices against certain groups of people? Sorry. I can’t.

Wale Osofisan

London, UK

The fallacy of neutrality

I typically feel the urge to vomit upon hearing or reading about the UN-mandated Swiss bullshit of neutrality and neutral humanitarianism, for the last 30 years, especially given Switzerland was benefiting from the Nazi genocide under the fog of ‘neutrality’. The same in Sweden.

Maung Zarni

London, UK

‘Neutrality’ in humanitarian/peacebuilding work went out the window when powerful Global North governments dictated who humanitarians/peacebuilders could help and who they couldn’t after 9/11. See Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project.

Saurav Upadhyay

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The neutrality principle was compromised much earlier [than 9/11]. Really, it was never fully actualised.

Maryam Z. Deloffre

We have to distinguish between humanitarian action and a humanitarian actor.

There is no such thing as neutral humanitarian action. There can only be an impartial humanitarian action, led by an independent and neutral actor. 

When the ICRC speaks of itself as a ‘principled organisation’, it uses the acronym NIIHA: Neutral independent, impartial humanitarian actor.

The word neutral is too often misunderstood as being linked to humanitarian action rather than to the obligation of the actor to abstain from taking sides in certain controversies.

This is why some action (outside the Red Cross) can still be considered humanitarian even if those doing it are neither neutral nor independent and therefore cannot expect to ‘enjoy the confidence of all sides’. For instance, most UN actions based on the so-called ‘right of humanitarian intervention’ can still be seen as ‘humanitarian’ without the UN pretending to be either neutral nor independent. 

The only principles which, when not respected, can deprive action of its ‘humanitarian’ label are impartiality, non-discrimination, and proportionality. 

Jacques Moreillon

Switzerland

[We should] compile a list of these simple, public-friendly fictions that keep our sectors going but don’t hold if you look closely. Off the top of my head, I’d add the notion that development aid decreases migration. 

Martin Ronceray

There are clearly some obvious examples in the Spanish Civil War and elsewhere of partisan humanitarian action (non-military support for only one side in a power struggle). But claims to neutral action often get entangled in subjective views. The ICRC commented in public about torture at Guantanamo – being concerned about the prisoners and trying to be consistent across other cases. Uber-patriots in the US immediately charged the ICRC with political bias, and of being just another left-wing European organisation that hated the US. Where you stand on the issue of neutral action often depends on where you sit. Ideological preconceptions often affect views about what is neutral and what is not. If the ICRC says there is an internal armed conflict in state X, the government there may regard that as an unfriendly act, biased against it. Detached outsiders might say the ICRC was just stating its best judgment in neutral, humanitarian defense of the laws of war. Partisan v. neutral humanitarian action often comes down to varying perceptions.

David Forsythe,

Nebraska, US

Redefining the humanitarian principles

Behaving in a neutral way means treating both sides in the same manner. Neutrality in a humanitarian context doesn’t mean passivity or closing the eyes, but considering the suffering, needs, dreams, desires of both parties in an equal, neutral manner.

Ilwana Klinke

Switzerland

Neutrality is the only principle that should be seen as a flexible tool – used to navigate access, security, and acceptance constraints while making sure that human rights are upheld. We need both: neutral, and less neutral actors!

Raphael Marcus

From my point of view, the main problem with Slim’s article is that it perpetuates the idea that humanitarian neutrality prevents us from having an ideology. Thus, it presents ‘principled humanitarianism’ and ‘activist humanitarianism’ as mutually exclusive.

In fact, activism is at the core of humanitarian action, even classic or Dunantist humanitarianism such as that of the ICRC. The very development of international humanitarian law, in which the ICRC has played a key role, required bringing together and persuading states to limit what they can and cannot do during conflict, and to agree their obligations to civilians and other protected persons. And that is activism!

When Slim talks about military medics as humanitarians, he is reducing humanitarianism to the provision of relief – and, most concerningly, he is equating to humanitarianism what is in fact an obligation of a primary duty-bearer.

This framing depletes humanitarianism of its activist side. As I argue in an upcoming article for the Journal of Humanitarian Affairs, humanitarianism has developed as a movement that has sought to promote a culture of restraint in war, a culture of resilience, and a humanitarian culture itself, especially the principle of humanity.

This is the principle we should be talking about – humanity – as it represents what humanitarianism stands for above all else, even neutrality.

As Jean Pictet has observed, humanitarians must be neutral “with regard to any doctrine except its own” (emphasis added). Similarly, Slim himself has argued that neutrality “does not prevent an organisation from having a principled position, based on firm ideals”. This means that neutrality does not prevent humanitarians from having a principled position with regards to any aspect of humanity, and that should include gender equality (as I have argued elsewhere) and racial justice.

Thus, rather than discarding neutrality as a principle and opening humanitarianism to other ‘versions’ that are not neutral; what we need is to question how neutrality has been conceptualised, and resignify it – so that it is not used as an excuse by ‘neutral’ humanitarian actors to stay silent “in the face of injustice”. Not taking the side of someone does not mean not taking the side of something. In reality, the latter may preclude the former: as Desmond Tutu famously said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”.

Ricardo Fal-Dutra Santos,

Geneva, Switzerland

(This article was updated on 1 October 2020 to include the reactions from Ricardo Fal-Dutra Santos and David Forsythe.)

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