Limits to neutrality in Iraq
by Jo Nickolls, Oxfam December 2003

Aid has been co-opted as part of the coalition’s political project in Iraq; few Iraqis distinguish between aid workers and personnel attached to the occupying powers, and some NGOs have become more or less contractors, providing services to the Iraqi population. In these fraught and politically-charged circumstances, it is almost impossible to be perceived as neutral.

With US or against US: the war on terror’s challenge to neutrality

On 20 September 2001, US President George W. Bush stated that ‘Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’.

Bush’s doctrine – the ‘with-us-or-against us’ doctrine – denies the possibility of neutrality by simply vanishing it away. It defines the two sides of a conflict – ‘terrorism’ versus ‘freedom’ and ‘civilisation’ – then automatically assigns all parties to one or the other: if you cannot side with Bush, you are for terrorism. The in-between of neutrality simply disappears, at least in the eyes of the US government.

The 1979 commentary to the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross offers the suggestion that, ‘If anyone presents the Red Cross with the well known and destructive dilemma embodied in the phrase, “whoever is not with me is against me”, may it always reply, “I am with all those who suffer, and that is sufficient”’.

In many situations, this simple reply might be enough. When a humanitarian organisation feeds the hungry or shelters the homeless, it may be enough to ‘be with’ those that suffer.

But is it sufficient in Iraq, where there are many layers of suffering and complex sets of perceptions about the causes of that suffering? Many Iraqi people claim that an element of their suffering results from the occupation of their country. ‘Being with’ such people and working to alleviate their suffering risks the perception that you have aligned yourself with the anti-Americanism that by Bush’s definition is equivalent to terrorism.

Challenges to neutrality in Iraq

The multiplicity of actors

In occupied Iraq, neutrality would certainly mean not siding with any armed actor. It would mean not siding with the US-led coalition, or with the US or British governments or any of their allies. It would also mean not siding with any Iraqi groups.

With the complex and heightened sensitivities in Iraq, abstaining from politics is also a crucial part of neutrality.

This means standing apart from the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, the Interim Cabinet of Ministers and any other political appointees.

It means not being associated with any government or even with promoting any particular form of government.

This entails not supporting the occupying powers’ goal of establishing a US-style democratic government in Iraq. The relative merits of democracy versus other forms of government are not something a neutral actor would have a position on.

Aid as a political strategy

The strategy of the US-led coalition in Iraq included getting assistance to Iraqi people immediately after the fighting. During the occupation of the country, the delivery of aid has remained a key goal of the US-led administration.

In April 2003, the military-run Humanitarian Affairs Coordination Centre in Jordan explained how important it was to get NGOs into the politically-important city of Basra in southern Iraq, because there was a need to show people quickly that life would get better now that Saddam Hussein had gone.

The desire to use assistance as part of a political and military strategy in Iraq is not limited to the military.

In May 2003, Andrew Natsios, the Administrator of USAID, explained to NGOs that they were an arm of the US government: ‘we need to show the people of Iraq an improvement in their standard of living in the next year or two’.

Instead of focusing solely on legal obligations to meet the basic needs of the population, the US government is clearly seeking to meet political objectives.

For example, the contract awarded by USAID to a private company for the rehabilitation of the education sector aims both to get children back to school, and to ‘lay a foundation for democratic practices and attitudes among children’.

NGOs as contractors

Some NGOs in Iraq have long since abandoned traditional humanitarian principles and work as contractors, delivering services to the Iraqi people.

Like private companies, NGOs that have signed US government ‘cooperative agreements’ (for which read contracts) to work in Iraq are unlikely to be perceived as neutral.

Many arrived after the war, have mainly American staff and are effectively working for the US government.

In addition to giving up the possibility of neutrality, these organisations may find it harder to explain how the principles of impartiality and independence are upheld.

For other NGOs, creating an individual identity has been made harder because perceptions of the whole humanitarian community in Iraq have been formed rapidly, and with very little information.

It is difficult to see how one NGO can retain the perception of neutrality – or, more worryingly, independence – when similar organisations are closely aligned with the occupying powers.

Distinctions between foreign actors

Carving a niche as an individual NGO within the humanitarian world is difficult enough. But is it possible to at least demonstrate that humanitarian organisations are different from the occupying powers in Iraq?

Certainly, the vast majority of Iraqis have no way of distinguishing between foreign people in civilian clothes working for the occupying forces and any other newly arrived foreigners.

This makes it unlikely that humanitarian organisations will be perceived as separate. Foreigners are referred to collectively as ‘the Americans’, regardless of their origin, and are thus presumed to be complicit with the US-led administration.

This extends to the UN agencies. In September 2003, people in the town of Fallujah, west of Baghdad in the so-called Sunni triangle, explained to a journalist that the UN is ‘controlled by America. It will never help Iraq. It’s not independent’.

In May, I asked a young American soldier if perhaps the distinction between humanitarian workers and the military wouldn’t be better preserved if he moved his tank from inside the UN compound at the Canal Hotel. ‘But I thought the UN was a branch of the US military,’ he replied. Clearly he didn’t realise that the UN was independent either.

The fact is that Westerners in Iraq are not perceived as neutral – and why should they be? Most arrived in the immediate aftermath of the war in April 2003.

Some, including organisations claiming to be non-governmental, were accompanied on their way into Iraq by combat elements of the coalition military.

The appearance of collaboration between military and civilian actors and the resultant loss of perceived neutrality occurs in more subtle ways as well. International humanitarian organisations are some of the select few who are granted access to the ornate palaces of the former regime to talk with the US-led administration that now resides there.

Many Iraqis are already angry at being excluded from the places where major decisions that determine their future are being made. Those queuing in the scorching sunshine at checkpoints outside the heavily fortified ‘Iraqi Assistance Centre’ in Baghdad must be particularly galled when NGO workers brandishing foreign passports are waved straight through the gates.

Taking a stand

At the start of 2003, Oxfam took a clear stand against the war in Iraq. On 28 January, Oxfam GB’s director, Barbara Stocking, said that military action against Iraq could ‘devastate the lives of millions of people … Oxfam believes war now to be unjustifiable’.

Daleep Mukarji, director of Christian Aid, took a similar position: ‘We believe that peaceful alternatives to conflict are not yet exhausted. All parties have a legal – and we believe a moral – obligation to seek the peaceful resolution of this dispute through the UN’.

Oxfam’s stance at the beginning of the Iraq war was not neutral. But our humanitarian response remains independent and impartial.

It is independent because we resist interference or directives on how to work in Iraq. And it is impartial because our response is based on needs alone and is conducted without discrimination.

These principles of independence and impartiality are ones that many humanitarian organisations work hard to uphold.

But in Iraq, demonstrating even these principles is difficult: the war on terror and the blurred boundaries between military actors, private companies and all the various humanitarian organisations there limit our ability to influence how we are perceived.

The unprecedented circumstances in Iraq mean that NGOs may not uphold all humanitarian principles.

But all humanitarian organisations must continually renew their commitment to humanity – to protecting life and alleviating human suffering.

Jo Nickollsis Oxfam’s Policy Adviser on Iraq. She writes here in a personal capacity.

References and further reading

‘President to Declare “Freedom at War with Fear”’, 20 September 2001,

Briefing by White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, 8 October 2003,

Pepe Escobar, ‘Fallujah: A Multilayered Picture Emerges’, Asia Times Online,