Deciphering neutrality in humanitarianism – World

In this article, Navya Khanna explores how neutrality hampers decolonization efforts and prevents lasting peace and conflict transformation around the world.

Navya Khanna

Neutrality is one of the four principles that define humanitarian action, alongside impartiality, independence and humanity. This means that humanitarian assistance must not favor any side in a violent conflict. This also means that they must not at any time engage in political, religious, racial or ideological controversies. This notion remains a contested principle among humanitarians.

Scholars like Stuart Gordon and Juliano Fiori have argued that neutrality is the result of a particular kind of geopolitics. Geopolitics in which the majority of conflicts were interstate in nature. But this is no longer the case.

Academics including John-Paul Lederach and Adam Curle believe that the increase in internal conflicts and civil wars around the world should lead to a redistribution of power. Place that power in the hands of local humanitarians and peacemakers. The default assumption, however, is that INGOs are best suited as the only ones who can remain neutral.

Neutrality in this case promotes the ideas underlying the “white savior” mentality. That is, the unfounded perception that white, often Western, actors are only moral and qualified to intervene during conflicts. They are often seen as perfect neutral arbiters.

Can we really remain neutral during a conflict? Is it even morally desirable?

Over the years, criticism of the humanitarian principle of neutrality has multiplied. It has become more than a tool to access victims, and closer to an excuse to prevent local peacemakers from resolving their own conflicts. It was also noted that humanitarian aid can never truly be neutral. Indeed, the very fact of providing assistance and protection means that one stands up against the author.

During South Africa’s violent transition after Nelson Mandela’s release, aid workers argued that their job was to reduce tensions. But this could only happen as part of their equal commitment to ending structural inequality – apartheid. Their firm belief in resolving conflict by addressing systemic discrimination challenged the notion of neutrality. Moreover, new humanitarians believe that philanthropy with a lack of rights and empowerment of local people threatens to reduce those who suffer to mere pitiful victims – unable to act against their own suffering.

Humanitarian aid, without addressing the root cause of injustice, only prolongs aid dependency.

The principle of neutrality also further isolates local peacebuilding efforts. Indeed, the majority of local NGOs cannot afford to develop detailed legal agreements with the various parties in a conflict to prove their neutrality. As Hugo Slim has pointed out, it takes access to financial resources and diplomatic networks to engage neutrally through conflict. Often, local NGOs do not have the financial means to access professional lawyers and mediators. The types of people who are familiar with customary international law and international human rights obligations.

Moreover, I belong to a growing contingent that believes neutrality is morally undesirable. Especially when the cause of people’s suffering is an authoritarian government. Fiona Terry has written about the reaction of Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s to international humanitarian organizations. When they shouted, “we don’t need you, we need weapons to defend ourselves, your food aid and your medicines only allow us to die in good health”. This leads us to ask ourselves, can aid really protect the local population? Especially when the conditions that perpetuate vulnerability persist, in an environment where the international community is actively operating.

Recently, pro-democracy activists in Myanmar have criticized international agencies for their lack of solidarity with the people of Myanmar. They also said they overlooked the root cause of the conflict – the illegitimate power of the military through a violent coup. In an interview with Emily Fishbein, an aid worker in Myanmar said “Of course, it’s easy to stay neutral when the act of injustice doesn’t affect you.” Activists in Myanmar have also urged international agencies to support local NGOs. Those who work to protect the civil and political rights of citizens of Myanmar.

INGOs have attempted to engage with military officials who are the main culprits of human rights abuses. International organizations have justified their neutrality by requiring a “travel permit” to enter Myanmar. Access to aid was often denied by the military in areas where pro-democracy demonstrations were taking place. This begs the question: why don’t IGNOs work with local organizations that have strong community networks? According to Khin Ohmar, not working with local organizations is a step backwards from the decolonization of aid practices.

It is crucial to understand that neutrality prevents humanitarians from addressing fundamental political issues related to aid. Neutrality also prevents humanitarians from addressing state action or inaction as well as the unequal power dynamics of the various stakeholders involved in a conflict.

Neutrality is not the only way forward

Neutral humanitarianism is not the only way to respond to conflict. Time and time again, local peacebuilders have used their contextual knowledge, community trust and networks to bring about negotiations and build lasting peace. Additionally, interfaith councils have played an important role in facilitating reconciliation efforts in response to the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Guinea. As discussed in this article, neutrality can be counterproductive and defeat the purpose of humanitarianism. It can also discredit and delegitimize the work of local peacemakers. This happens by spreading the false narrative that we need to be neutral to be a good aid worker. Thus, neutrality can reinforce the colonization of aid practices.

Navya Khanna is a peace practitioner who has 3 years of experience in volunteering and working with organizations in the field of development and migration. She is also a volunteer with the Peacebuilding Project. Navya coordinated and implemented field projects. This experience made her a proponent of community-driven solutions to positively transform conflict. In 2020, she launched her own youth-led initiative called Diversity Dialogue, committed to countering hate speech and providing peace education in India. She recently completed an Honors BA in Political Science and a minor in Indian History from Kamala Nehru College, University of Delhi. She currently works as a research assistant in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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