Issue 21 - Article 16

The compartmentalisation of humanitarian action

August 7, 2002
Gerald Martone

Many of today’s conflicts are characterised as ‘protection crises’, yet protecting human rights is somehow seen as at odds with providing humanitarian aid.

The primary mandate of relief agencies operating in humanitarian emergencies is to provide urgent assistance to people in need. This typically involves providing food, shelter, water, medical care and other essential and lifesaving services. The physical and legal protection of civilians is regarded as subordinate to these commitments. Yet suffering may frequently stem from the loss or denial of physical and legal protection, for which humanitarian aid offers no remedy. The traditional perspective of humanitarian motivation must expand beyond the conventional view of how people are dying, to embrace an enlightened appraisal of how people are living.

Human rights or humanitarian assistance?

The protection of human rights is somehow seen as at odds with the provision of humanitarian assistance. The consensus definition of protection, as given by the ICRC, is ‘any activity which prevents or puts a stop to a specific pattern of abuse and/or alleviates its immediate effects’. Relief assistance tends to focus on the second aspect of protection, and does not address directly human rights violations at their source: ‘We’ll die with full stomachs’, as the oft-quoted Bosnian refrain has it. There is thus a conspicuous compartmentalisation peculiar to the field of humanitarian action that distinguishes as entirely distinct guilds activities that are in fact interdependent and interrelated. These simultaneously coexisting spheres of activity sometimes perform in oblivious parallels. This contrived categorisation works against a holistic engagement to political crises; it is compassion without understanding, and means that the cumulative impact of these disparate actors is not realised.

Human rights organisations and humanitarian assistance agencies interact only accidentally or socially, despite the countless situations where both simultaneously operate. In the one unifying covenant governing humanitarian conduct, the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief, none of the ten principles delineates a commitment to the protection of vulnerable civilian populations. The practical dimensions of political advocacy, community mobilisation and public protest are conspicuously absent. This critical lacuna in an otherwise practical code demonstrates how allergic aid agencies are to dealing with the root causes of abuse.

That said, relief organisations are beginning to consider the integration of human rights and protection issues. UNHCR, the UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) and the ICRC have all published practical field guides for NGO staff, and initiatives such as the Reach Out refugee protection training project provide a useful base of protection parameters particularly relevant to aid workers. The International Rescue Committee and a few other NGOs have established departments with a mandate to address advocacy, public policy and protection.

Considering the frequency, duration and severity of human rights abuses, it should not be a question of whether relief agencies address the issue of human rights protection, but rather to what extent and how they do so. Responses range from the strict neutrality, discretion and non-disclosure of the ICRC to the public demarches and vocal advocacy of human rights organisations. Interventions responding to negligent or ruthless parties can be categorised into three types: persuasion in an attempt to convince and compel authorities; denunciation in order to pressure and shame authorities; and substitution to replace authorities that have failed to meet their responsibilities.

Neutrality: an obsolete principle

Relief organisations have pervasive concerns that the public denouncement of human rights abuses in a host country will result in their expulsion; put at risk the security of their staff; and incur bureaucratic penalties. In general, aid agencies deliberately avoid even institutional proximity to the public protest of human rights agencies.

This has not always been the case. Examples abound of organisations registering their outrage at government mistreatment of civilians and the restriction of humanitarian access, without punitive consequences. In some instances, as with MSF in Burundi, public protest has actually resulted in improved access to formerly inaccessible populations. In Angola, MSF held a series of press conferences and released a report in late 2000 that was very critical of government and rebel abuse of the civilian population; the move drew little official reaction. Indeed, it had unforeseen benefits, such as inviting more open expression of public opinion, and the use of the report’s findings to advocate for improved conditions.

Exaggerated fears of expulsion and a tenacious adherence to the ideal of neutrality can become alibis in a conspiracy of silence. The dilemma is reduced to an oversimplified choice: public denunciation at the risk of expulsion, or silence at the risk of passive complicity. It was this very point of divergence from the rigid neutrality of the ICRC that inspired the formation of MSF during the Biafran war in 1967. Opposed to the statutory neutrality and silent diplomacy of ICRC, MSF’s founders spoke out about the atrocities they had witnessed. Without a vigorous campaign of advocacy, the mobilisation of public opinion, human rights monitoring and information sharing, relief assistance is merely palliative, and indistinguishable from the response to a natural disaster. Humanitarian neutrality – interpreted to mean not taking sides in hostilities or engaging in political, racial, religious or ideological controversies – in no way justifies a neutral stance towards suffering or the abuse of basic human rights: ‘Neutrality cannot be maintained when responding to complex emergencies; it is irresponsible to pretend otherwise … in some instances it would be morally repugnant to remain neutral.’

Agencies are beginning to promote a renewed emphasis on the principle of impartiality, which refers to an agency’s non-discriminatory stature, where neutrality refers to its non-political stature. Impartiality may prove a more enduring guiding principle for humanitarian action. Impartial assistance is allocated in such a way that it does not discriminate on the basis of nationality, race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It is aid given in proportion to need, not as a factor of demographics. The slow death of the word neutrality from the lexicon of beleaguered relief agencies is a welcome evolution. This shameful and dispassionate notion connotes abstention not engagement, abandonment not involvement.

Protest: taking a stand against tyranny

‘Silence cannot be a precondition for operational freedom’. So-called ‘rebellious humanitarianism’ demands that agencies have a responsibility – and a capacity – to influence the political, military and economic context in which they operate. Neutrality can no longer be a silent deal, whereby assistance agencies agree not to interfere with the conflict in exchange for the combatants’ agreement not to interfere with the aid effort. The cloak of neutral positioning masks the reluctance and tentative resolve of assistance agencies to stand up for populations in extremis. The hollow rhetoric of neutrality has become an alibi for the timid to shrink from protest. In this regard, it has been conveniently interpreted as a duty to abstain from any action that furthers or disadvantages the position of one side of a conflict over the other. Hence, humanitarian neutrality becomes passive.

To withhold public outcry is heartless. Only an extraordinarily aloof perspective could justify the decision to turn one’s back on human misery. This fickle and calculating gesture is an unforgivable act of feigned moral purity. As one aid worker sarcastically puts it, ‘the modern relief agency has replaced the principle of neutrality with arrogance’.

When a humanitarian agency is outraged at a particular situation, a rationalised silence is a particularly cruel and uncreative way to react. What is needed instead is a relentless and tenacious engagement by aid agencies that exerts pressure on negligent governments. In the face of atrocious and unforgiving situations, we must force local authorities to contend with our irritating presence. Unaccompanied by action, the silence of international agencies in an abusive context conveys the wrong message, that violations will be tolerated or condoned. A passive, resigned presence not only fails to deter violations of civilians, but also inoculates perpetrators against the presence of international witnesses. Protests must be conspicuous, forceful and courageous.

A new amalgam

The challenge is to address the needs of war-affected people in a principled manner, that is to manage programme activities in a way that upholds humanitarian values, while simultaneously standing up for human rights. The ‘protection gap’ must be closed. Assistance agencies that conspire in this peculiar segregation of duties – relief versus protection – are failing to meet their moral burden to address the very conditions that demand their services. It is no longer acceptable for the protection of human rights to be either an unwonted or an unwanted aspect of the work of assistance agencies.

As long as the provision of aid is construed as a humanitarian imperative, all other concerns are consigned an inferior status. This imperative becomes the non-negotiable moral absolute, and all other inalienable rights are regarded as secondary.

There are practical, proven and effective approaches that aid organisations can successfully include in their field programmes to protect the rights of populations they serve. These include establishing information centres and legal aid services, liaison and ‘protective accompaniment’ and capacity-building for national NGOs, justice workers and district authorities. Aid agencies can also pool resources to support technical advisers for protection, human rights focal points and refugee ombudsmen. We must also seek to involve the people we intend to protect. By sensitising affected communities, publishing information bulletins in local dialects and raising awareness, war-affected people can participate in their own protection. A mobilised community is a potent deterrent to human rights violators.

Relief agencies work in settings where the scope and scale of human rights violations demand a deliberate response. Their workers are in direct contact with the effects of human rights abuses. The monitoring of human rights violations, alerting the public and media, training public officials in human rights principles and educating war-affected people about their rights must become a central element of relief assistance interventions.

Gerald Martoneis Director of Emergency Response at the International Rescue Committee, New York. His email address is:

References and further reading

ICRC, Strengthening Protection in War: A Search for Professional Standards (Geneva: ICRC, 2001).

Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief, RRN Network Paper 7 (London: ODI, 1994).

UNHCR, Protecting Refugees: A Field Guide for NGOs (Geneva: Atar SA, 1999).

Diane Paul, Growing the Sheltering Tree, UN IASC Reference Group, March 2001.

Paul Bonard, Modes of Action Used by Humanitarian Players (Geneva: ICRC, 1999).

J. de Milliano, ‘The MSF Perspective on the Need for Cooperation between Humanitarian and Human Rights Organizations’, from the final report of the Conference on Cooperation between Humanitarian and Human Rights Organisations, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, February 1996.

Marc DuBois, ‘Beyond the Classic Humanitarian Response: MSF’s Advocacy in Angola’, Humanitarian Exchange 19, September 2001.

Diane Paul, Protection in Practice: Field-Level Strategies for Protecting Civilians from Deliberate Harm, Network Paper 30 (London: ODI, 1999).

Roberta Cohen and James Kunder, Humanitarian and Human Rights Emergencies, Policy Brief 83 (Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, June 2001).


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