Issue 25 - Article 1

Does it still make sense to be neutral?

December 15, 2003
Marion Harroff-Tavel, International Committee of the Red Cross

Neutrality, a commonly misunderstood principle of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, is once again in the line of fire.

Yet those of us who work for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) firmly believe that neutrality provides a sound basis for action.

This article discusses five arguments frequently advanced against neutrality, and raises some questions of its own at a time when world views are becoming increasingly oppositional, seemingly leaving little room for neutrality.

The ICRC and neutrality

First, a few words about neutrality as we see it in our daily work. To the ICRS, neutrality does not imply aloofness, but compassion for war victims, in the etymological sense of ‘suffering with’, or being by their side. Nor does neutrality imply coldness or lack of feeling.

It is precisely because the feelings we have towards the suffering of those we seek to assist are not ‘neutral’ that we must adhere to political, religious and ideological neutrality – for that is what enables us to gain access to them. It is because we refuse to accept a world torn apart by conflicts of interest, ideology and civilisation that we strive to convince all parties that our action is impartial and cannot in any way be construed otherwise.

This is our way of building bridges in a highly polarised world. People are not born neutral, they choose to become so. And people do not struggle against their own nature without good reason. While refusing to despair of mankind may denote a lack of realism, refusing to take sides does not signify a lack of courage.

Five misconceptions about neutrality

Neutrality is naïve

Some people contend that it is naive to believe that any humanitarian action can be neutral. All such action is necessarily political – for it has a political impact.

In this view, the days of apolitical humanitarian action are over. While the maxim that humanitarian and political action must be kept apart admittedly failed to take into account the full complexity of the underlying issues, it drove home the point that humanitarian agencies have no political agendas of their own and that their work is disinterested.

Although visiting a prominent member of an opposition group in prison may well have political repercussions, the organization’s aim in so doing is purely humanitarian. Neutrality in this case means that the ICRC does not comment on the grounds for incarceration or on any ideological matters.

Neutrality is a smokescreen

The second argument given against neutrality stems from the belief that humanitarian agencies, while claiming to be neutral, not only have political leanings but also belong to a loosely defined ‘opposition’ that uses the defence of human rights as a smokescreen for a political agenda of its own, be it toppling a regime or putting pressure on an occupying power.

The error here is to lump together a host of organisations that consider themselves humanitarian but in fact have very different identities, mandates and principles of action. Some are tied to political movements while others, like the ICRC, are independent.

Among those that have political leanings, some oppose their governments while others are instruments thereof.

While ICRC delegates have their own personal political views, which no doubt cover a broad spectrum of opinion, as representatives of a neutral organisation they cannot express those views. It is therefore important to examine all aspects of the problem and avoid hasty generalisations.

The above argument raises the question of whether the term ‘humanitarian’ should only be applied to organisations that meet a specific set of criteria. A number of organisations, considering that this is precisely what is required in order to preserve the integrity of humanitarian action, have adopted a code of conduct. Certain criteria are deemed especially important, i.e. assistance must correspond to existing needs and be given without discrimination; the organisation in question may espouse certain political or religious opinions, but the aid it provides cannot be used to promote those opinions; and humanitarian organisations cannot serve as instruments of a government’s foreign policy.

By adopting a code of conduct, these organisations made their position on these issues clear for all to see. It is far more constructive to acknowledge the differences that exist than to indiscriminately label as ‘humanitarian’ a wide range of activities carried out by a variety of organisations.

Neutrality is passivity

A third argument frequently heard is that being neutral is the same thing as failing to take a stand against behaviour that deserves to be condemned or – worse – that it is tantamount to a shameful surrender of principle.

In this view, neutrality is considered as cowardly, if not complicit, silence in the face of acts of aggression or violations of humanitarian law. With the resurgence of the notion of total warfare, it is all the more urgent to reply to this criticism.

Neutrality should not be confused with confidentiality. The ICRC’s neutrality has a very specific purpose, namely to enable the organisation to gain the trust of all the parties to a conflict, whatever their stance, and thus to come to the aid of all the victims. Neutrality is simply a means to this end. If it were not neutral, the ICRC would be unable to evacuate the wounded or repatriate prisoners across front lines.

If it carried armed soldiers in its ambulances, the latter would immediately be shot at. As for confidentiality, it is a working method, a means of persuasion that is the ICRC’s preferred approach. The organisation enters into agreements based on trust with the parties to a conflict, whereby it undertakes to inform them confidentially of any violations it finds in places that come under their authority, especially prisons, and the parties in turn commit themselves to putting an end to those violations.

This is not the same thing as silence, or cowardice, or compromise. It is more difficult to say to a security minister that a country’s prisons are unsanitary, overcrowded and run by staff that torture inmates than to publish an article denouncing these facts in the press.

Confidentiality, however, has limits. In cases where ICRC delegates note serious and repeated violations of humanitarian law, where their confidential approaches fail to make a difference and where the ICRC believes that going public would be in the interest of the people it seeks to protect and assist, the organisation informs the States party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions of the situation, drawing their attention to the obligation they have under the Conventions to ensure respect for humanitarian law.

In other words, the ICRC is fully aware that there are limits to persuasion and that public denunciation – the means of action favoured by organisations like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International – can sometimes, albeit not always, be more effective.

When the ICRC decides to take a public stand on violations of humanitarian law because its efforts at persuasion have been to no avail, it is not departing from the principle of neutrality but from the practice of confidentiality.

The ICRC can object publicly to attacks against civilians, the destruction of homes and summary executions, for example, without taking sides in the conflict that has brought on such tragedies, as long as it does so objectively and on the basis of principles that apply equally to all.

In other words, it should be understood that those who criticise the ICRC for failing to publicly condemn violations of humanitarian law are calling into question not its neutrality but its judgement in relying too long, in a given conflict, on persuasion as an effective means of putting an end to violations.

And sometimes they are right, as the ICRC has acknowledged with respect to its action in the Second World War. It can therefore be useful to challenge the ICRC’s position. But in calling into question the ICRC’s neutrality, critics are involuntarily harming the very cause they wish to defend. The ICRC’s reliance on the principle of neutrality is the result of long years of steadfast determination and practical experience.

A humanitarian organisation cannot be partially neutral or intermittently neutral. Yet it can occasionally make an exception to the rule of confidentiality provided it does so in accordance with clearly-defined criteria.

Neutrality and ‘just war’

A fourth argument advanced is based on the re-emerging notion of ‘just war’. Those who believe they have good reasons to wage war tend to misunderstand the motives of those who, owing to their neutrality, do not support them.

If a cause is just, they feel, then war is legitimate and the ends justify the means. That being the case, everyone should take part in their struggle.

In our view, however, the notion of ‘just war’ makes neutrality all the more necessary for an organisation whose aim is to bring assistance to conflict victims on the ground. There are few belligerents who do not consider their war as just, but this does not make it just for their adversaries.

The ICRC must not fall into the trap of stating that some wars are just and others not, which would be tantamount to ruling on issues of jus ad bellum – the law governing recourse to force – whereas its mandate requires it to ensure respect only for jus in bello – the rules that apply in wartime.

Those who carry out so-called humanitarian interventions may do so in the name of lofty ideals, or to put an end to human rights violations, but they may at the same time be defending national or geostrategic interests.

Likewise, those who fight in the name of ideology, ethnicity or religion may be using that as a means of appropriating the natural resources of an enemy. If there is one issue that humanitarian organisations must approach with great caution, it is that of the legitimacy of a cause.

The ICRC cannot take a position on the grounds for a conflict or the legality of a war under the UN Charter, for example; it can only determine what is right and wrong in relation to behaviour in combat, on the basis of humanitarian law and considerations of humanity.

The ICRC cannot discriminate between victims depending on their attachment to the ‘good’ side or the ‘bad’ side.

Neutrality and ‘guilt’

As for the fifth argument, its proponents claim, on ethical grounds, that some people entitled to protection under international humanitarian law are less deserving than others, namely those who have committed atrocities before being wounded, falling ill or being captured.

If the ICRC were to follow such a line of thinking, it would have to pass judgment on those it sought to help and thus distinguish between the ‘innocent’ and the ‘guilty’.

This is a slippery slope that could lead to judgment on the basis of group affiliation rather than individual behaviour. This approach would contravene the principle of impartiality, which is a cornerstone of humanitarian law and action.

While ICRC delegates may well have little sympathy for certain causes or disapprove of certain acts committed by people with whom they come in contact, they strive to set aside that feeling to the extent necessary to provide those individuals with the protection and assistance to which all human beings are entitled.

The work of ICRC delegates is based on the premise that the moral, physical and spiritual integrity – the dignity – of each and every person must be respected, without discrimination, in accordance with the international treaties that provide for protection of the individual.

In any event, distinguishing between the ‘innocent’ and the ‘guilty’ would be unworkable as it would require humanitarian organisations to presume guilt in advance of any judicial process. The ICRC is not a tribunal and its delegates are not judges. Furthermore, the organisation’s role is precisely to protect those people on whom states or groups may seek to take revenge.

The complexities of neutrality

Thus, neutrality remains as valid a principle as ever. Does adherence to this principle make life any easier for the ICRC? If only things were that simple.

First, neutrality carries an unfortunate connotation of distance, coldness. Yet it does not imply an absence of feelings. The ICRC can and must talk about human suffering, but to what extent can its delegates show what they feel when confronted with it without appearing to take sides?

Furthermore, neutrality can be misunderstood as meaning that one must strike a perfect balance in any public positions adopted or admonishments given. How can such a pitfall be avoided?

Lastly, tomorrow’s conflicts are likely to be accompanied by increasing acts of sabotage and terrorism, which will no doubt lead to mounting pressure for public condemnation. While it is legitimate to condemn acts aimed at spreading terror, such criticism makes it all the more difficult to maintain the trust of the local population who may view the perpetrators as heroes.

On the other hand, endeavouring to uphold the law that confers protection on people suspected of having committed such crimes is sometimes viewed with suspicion by those who support the fight against terrorism.

The truth is that our task is far from easy and that humanitarian organisations may differ in their views of what neutrality entails.

We face dilemmas and sometimes have to weigh different options, knowing that there are no perfect answers – this is why dialogue among humanitarian organisations can lead to more informed choices. But one thing we are sure of is that independent, neutral and impartial humanitarian action must not be allowed to become a casualty of all-out war.

Marion Harroff-Tavelis Deputy Director for International Law and Cooperation within the Movement, International Committee of the Red Cross.

Further reading

‘Action by the ICRC in the Event of Breaches of International Humanitarian Law’, International Review of the Red Cross (IRRC), no. 221, March–April 1981, pp. 76–83.

‘Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Disaster Relief’, approved by the Council of Delegates, Birmingham, 29–30 October 1993. See also J. Borton (ed.), Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief, Network Paper 7, 1994.

La neutralité, sésame humanitaire?, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), report on a public debate held on 19 May 2001 during the General Assembly of the Swiss branch of MSF.

Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, adopted by the 25th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva, 1986; under the principle of neutrality, the preamble to the Statutes states: ‘In order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Movement may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature’.

François Bugnion, The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Protection of War Victims (Geneva: ICRC/Macmillan, October 2003).

Marion Harroff-Tavel, ‘Neutrality and Impartiality: The Importance of These Principles for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the Difficulties Involved in Applying Them’, IRRC, no. 273, November–December 1989, pp. 536–52.

Jean Pictet, The Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross: Commentary (Geneva: Henry Dunant Institute, 1979).


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