Neutrality in humanitarian action
by Humanitarian Practice Network December 2003

Neutrality is traditionally regarded as one of the core, defining principles of humanitarian action, and essential to securing access to people in need of protection and assistance in politically-charged environments. Together with impartiality, it features in the mandates of many organisations involved in humanitarian response. It is, however, interpreted in different ways. Many argue that, with such crises as the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, neutrality is under grave threat as an operating principle. Some believe that it is essential for the future of humanitarian action that its neutrality be reinforced and protected. For others, neutrality is an impractical and unrealistic standard or condition. For some, it is a senseless charade that may cost lives instead of saving them.

The special feature of this issue of Humanitarian Exchange focuses on neutrality in humanitarian action. The articles in the feature show that the concept of neutrality has many facets: neutrality in the public position adopted by organisations regarding political disputes; neutrality in the actual effect of their interventions (does it advance the war aims of one or other party?); and the perception by others of the neutrality of an organisation.

Marion Harroff-Tavel reviews the origins and rationale for this principle from the point of view of the ICRC, for whom it is one of seven Fundamental Principles. Abby Stoddard discusses the implications of post-9/11 US foreign policy for neutral humanitarian action. Jo Nickolls of Oxfam looks at the co-option of humanitarianism into the international coalition’s political project in Iraq. Eva Bjøreng presents the approach of Norwegian People’s Aid, for whom solidarity with the people NPA aims to help supersedes neutrality and impartiality. Chris McIvor of Save the Children examines the application of the principle in non-conflict situations such as Zimbabwe. Finally, Abdel Rahman Ghandour describes perceptions of the neutrality of Western aid organisations in the Islamic world.

As always, this issue also has articles on a range of other humanitarian policy and practice issues. Luc Zandvliet examines relations between humanitarian agencies and commercial actors; Robert Muggah discusses the findings of a survey on the impact of small arms on civilians and relief workers; Jonathan Potter presents the new People In Aid Code of Good Practice; and Adele Harmer considers calls for a ‘new humanitarian coalition’. As part of our series on the humanitarian policy of institutional donors, Tasneem Mowjee reviews the policy and practice of ECHO. Sarah La Trobe examines the approach of institutional donors to disaster risk reduction, while Tom Palakudiyil and Mary Todd look at community responses to natural disasters. Amelia Bookstein calls for more effective protection for people in neglected conflicts.

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