Neutrality: principle or tool?

August 19, 2021
Sean Healy

Neutrality is one of the four fundamental humanitarian principles, but remains deeply contested among humanitarians. It’s not too hard to see why – who would want to stay ‘neutral’ in a struggle between injustice and justice? Between dictatorship and democracy? Between racism and anti-racism?

Neutrality is being called into question yet again by recent events.

First, the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 sparked a movement for change against structural racism within humanitarianism. Many are saying that neutrality should be redefined or dropped altogether, as it privileges foreigners over community members and allows humanitarian agencies to assist the victims of oppression, in perpetuity, without ever having to challenge or undo that oppression.

Second, is the rise of non-violent resistance movements to repressive regimes in a number of countries – such as Hong Kong in 2019, Belarus in 2020, and Myanmar presently. There have been calls for humanitarians to actively support their efforts, arguing (and not without cause) that without democracy, civil society cannot truly exist.

The idea that neutrality can blind humanitarians to right and wrong is not a new one. In 2000, Fiona Terry argued:

Humanitarian action is more than a technical exercise aimed at nourishing a population that is defined as ‘in need’, but is a moral endeavour based on solidarity with other members of humanity. Thus, the overriding question that we need to pose is whether it is morally acceptable to remain neutral when faced with genocide or grave violations of human rights. Refusing to make a judgement between who is wrong and who is right assumes a legal and moral equality between oppressors and their victims; it places them on an equal footing. Remaining neutral ratifies the rule of the strongest.

Neutrality’s uses

And yet neutrality is central to many humanitarians’ practice, including MSF’s.

Neutrality is primarily useful in situations of conflict. In war, there will be victims and survivors on all sides, all of whom deserve assistance and protection, no matter what their political views, whose territory they live in, or their ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’. If they are to help people on both sides, humanitarian actors need to convince armed parties that they are not ‘siding with the enemy’. They can do this by stressing their neutrality: ‘If you let us care for these people, we will agree not to work against you’.

Neutrality also has its uses outside conflict. Authoritarian states, more or less by definition, generate significant suffering – for example, among the ethnic minorities they persecute, or the detainees they hold in their prison system. The price humanitarian agencies usually pay to access people in need is, again, neutrality. They must agree not to confront, challenge or oppose the state.

Indeed, neutrality can be seen as a survival strategy, used by humanitarians just as it is by many civilians in times of conflict and crisis:

The government kill the Taliban and when the Taliban find the opportunity, they kill the government. Poor and innocent people have been suffering and try not to come between them.

There are deep moral compromises involved in adhering to neutrality, as it often means legitimising the power of those in control. Humanitarians must weigh up whether the good done by providing material assistance and protection outweighs this harm.

Finally, neutrality has some deeper value too. Neutrality reminds us not to make hasty calls on which side is right and which is wrong. Humanitarians should not be the arbiters of truth and justice.

Neutrality might therefore encourage international humanitarian organisations to exercise restraint and caution in the way they ‘intervene’ in societies, given their own standpoint and biases, and their deep connections to the global liberal order.

Neutrality’s limits

While useful and valuable, neutrality is a much more limited concept than many may think. Admittedly, the Red Cross Red Crescent movement’s definition of neutrality  is drawn broadly:

In order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Red Cross may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.

MSF’s concept of neutrality is more narrow:

To be neutral means not taking sides in a conflict, whether directly or by allying oneself with one or another party to the conflict.

From the time of the departure of the ‘French doctors’ from the Red Cross during the Biafran conflict MSF’s relationship to the concept of neutrality has often been ambivalent.

In exceptional circumstances, MSF would rather condemn the perpetrators of atrocities, or withdraw from its work, than become complicit in such acts. On that basis, MSF took sides in several conflicts in the 1980s and 1990s – by calling for military intervention to prevent the Rwandan genocide, for example, asking for similar  action in Bosnia, and by denouncing Russia’s bombing of civilians in Chechnya. In more recent conflicts, while trying hard to maintain a perception of neutrality, MSF has not shied away from naming the perpetrators of ‘carnage’ in Aleppo,  or of condemning ‘clearance operations’ against the Rohingya in Myanmar.

On many occasions during the ‘Global War on Terror’, MSF insisted firmly, loudly and repeatedly on its neutrality. But this assertion of neutrality was also deeply oppositional, as it was in direct contradiction to Western government attempts to co-opt humanitarian agencies.

Outside of situations of conflict, MSF has leapt into political controversies on multiple other occasions. On access to medicines, on anti-refugee laws, on decriminalising abortion, MSF has taken positions on political issues of central importance that are deeply embedded in the oppressive systems of capitalism, of state sovereignty, of patriarchy. MSF has broken, or at least bent, principles of neutrality many times.

The relationship between neutrality and humanity

MSF’s application of neutrality might seem inconsistent. Partly, this is because each case is decided on the basis of its specifics. But it is also because of the demands of a deeper principle – the principle of humanity. If we’ve ‘breached’ neutrality, it is because we have been protesting against acts of inhumanity.

No humanitarian can be neutral in the face of crimes against humanity – mass killings, persecutions, famines, chemical weapons attacks, bombings of hospitals and schools. But further, no humanitarian should be neutral about humans dying on a border, or from lack of medicines that exist in abundance, or from unsafe abortion. No one should ever accept these things.

Humanitarians must be prepared to take risks, and take sides, when humanity is at stake.

Humanitarians can and must be oppose inhumanity

So, what consequences might this argument have for humanitarian practice today?

First, neutrality needs to be put in its proper place – as a tool, valuable and useful in many circumstances, but useless in others. If neutrality is needed for us to enact our commitments to people who are suffering, then we should be neutral. If neutrality would force us to add too much to that suffering, to do more harm than good, then we should not be neutral. And in the many cases where questions around neutrality are not clear-cut, we should take time to understand the situation and debate and document our arguments for possible responses before deciding on what we believe to be the right course of action.

Second, humanitarians should oppose violations of humanity, and should not use neutrality as an excuse to avoid doing so.

Racism is a violation of the principle of humanity. It deems some less worthy, less human than others by reason of the colour of their skin and so justifies many kinds of discrimination and oppression. Opposing racism is therefore a duty for humanitarians. The same is true for other systems of oppression. There are many ways in which humanitarians can oppose racism. For MSF, its starting point is to recognise its own place in a racist world, the privilege and the power it holds, and the ways it replicates racist inequalities – and to address its own problems in its thought and practice.

Third, the idea that only foreigners can be neutral should be ditched. It is, as Degan Ali argued, a racist idea. Neutrality can be adopted by anyone. There are many examples where, for instance, medics in a country have tried to stand outside a conflict, make their clinics a zone of safety and provide care to all. Such service is not only in the gift of international humanitarian agencies.

The fourth implication is that humanitarians are right to feel solidarity with non-violent people’s movements against oppression, to feel hopeful at the courage of people resisting oppression, and to feel anger when they suffer repression.  These are not just our own ‘personal sympathies’ but shared humanitarian sentiments. How we should act on them in each context is a matter of judgement.  But there is no contest for our sympathies between oppressed and oppressor.

Sean Healy is the Head of Reflection and Analysis for Médecins Sans Frontières.


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