Humanity, impartiality, independence – and neutrality: these are the four basic principles of humanitarian aid. But the relevance of neutrality is increasingly being called into question. Arguments for and against.
By Dr. Helene Mutschler, Executive Director of Action against Hunger Germany
Neutrality is a very difficult and often thankless endeavour, especially in war-torn regions. Russia’s war in Ukraine has intensified once again, as has the debate about humanitarian neutrality: How can we be ‘neutral’ in the face of the war crimes being documented in Ukraine, as the film ‘20 Days in Mariupol’, which is opening this year's festival, impressively and painfully asks us? Serious violations of human rights in crisis regions like Syria, Ethiopia and Afghanistan also raise the legitimate question: Can humanitarian aid be neutral?
For us as a humanitarian organisation, the answer is: yes. We must claim neutrality if we want to help people regardless of their origins, religion or ideology. That is our mandate.
Neutrality is not a value in itself but the necessary foundation for being able to provide humanitarian aid in the first place. Our task is to ensure dignified survival for as many people in need as we can. This is only possible if we have secure humanitarian access to the affected communities so that we can supply people on the ground with food, water and medicine. If we are perceived to be biassed and not neutral, it jeopardises our ability to access those communities safely. An increasing number of attacks on humanitarian workers show how real this danger is. So we have to talk to all the actors involved and convince them that we are providing neutral, impartial humanitarian aid.
Part of the reality is that there will always be situations where our neutral position is challenged. When the Taliban imposed a ban on women working in the aid sector in Afghanistan last December, we were faced with a dilemma: our vital work was massively curtailed from one day to the next because 400 of our roughly 1,000 employees in Afghanistan were women. Female professionals are essential, especially in our nutrition and health programmes. Humanitarian aid without women? Unthinkable!
With special permits, women were able to work in medical facilities. We looked for solutions that would allow us to resume our work – together with our female employees – after we had to suspend it temporarily. We have since repeatedly appealed to the authorities to end the exclusion measures for women as they put the lives of millions of people in danger.
Neutrality in a humanitarian context does not mean indifference – it means the opposite: the principle of humanity guides our actions. Sometimes we have to make painful compromises to fulfil our mandate: saving lives.
About the author:
Dr Helene Mutschler is the CEO of Action against Hunger Germany.
By Hugo Slim, Blavatnik School of Government at University of Oxford
Four principles – humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence – are considered to be the foundations of humanitarian action. Without them, it is said, aid workers can be neither legitimate nor effective.
For too long, it has 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 this assumption. The neutral humanitarian model that has become so dominant as an international norm comes largely from the influence of Swiss political ideology. The modern Swiss commitment to neutrality was driven by two men from the same Genevan family. In 1815, Charles Pictet de Rochemont, a Swiss politician, negotiated the international recognition of Switzerland’s political neutrality, thereby producing the signature value of modern Swiss internationalism. In 1965, Jean Pictet, 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.
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.
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 are not expected to be neutral – like the parties in conflicts, military medics and civilian associations of various kinds.
Second, it is not operationally feasible for many relief organisations that work solely in the territory of one conflict party to develop contacts, negotiations and aid agreements with other parties to convince them of their neutrality. It takes a lot of time and money as well as diplomatic networks to maintain neutrality throughout a conflict in the way the ICRC envisages.
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 when 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.
About the author:
Hugo Slim is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government