Neutrality is one of the humanitarian principles most likely to trigger interesting debates among humanitarian agencies, yet most of them prefer not to make much noise about the topic.
Neutrality means not to take side and position in any regard in any kind of conflict. It is very closely related to independence, i.e. not to act in support of political goals or actions of any party in the conflict. With impartiality, this means not to discriminate any person for belonging to any kind of group at the time of evaluating the human needs that have to be attended to first.
Almost all of the big humanitarian NGOs do not define themselves as neutral in their codes of conduct; they keep a rights based approach on the side of the oppressed. This position of defending those whose rights have been violated, and the carrying out of advocacy activities to stop such violations, is not compatible with a neutral attitude towards a conflict.
However, most of humanitarian agencies employ a public discourse calling for the respect of humanitarian principles. When these are enumerated, neutrality is included, along with independence, impartiality and humanity, even if they do not really adhere to the former. Some of the organizations are clear in articles,and explicitly state that they are not neutral.Others claim to be neutral while later making a mess of concepts like impartiality and finally ending with a poetic defence of the rights of the oppressed.
But in spite of what is written, all humanitarian agencies advocate operative neutrality in the field, claiming access solely to deliver aid to those in need. Of course, this claim in only truly valid for a few organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent (ICRC). In reality, most of the humanitarian agencies do not only provide assistance but also carry advocacy activities, such as social mobilization, denouncing issues in the media and lobbying to a lesser or larger extent.
The debate about neutrality is not new. Indeed, it triggered the founding of Doctors Without Borders (better known with the French acronym MSF) when a group of ICRC workers disagreed with the silence kept by this organization during the Biafra war (1967-1970). Yet Avaaz, with its current humanitarian assistance in Syria, has gone a little further in the debate humanitarianism vs neutrality. Perhaps it is defining the new pattern for the humanitarian aid and even for the international cooperation in general.
While carrying out advocacy work, humanitarian organizations are very careful in their public discourse in order to not hamper actual assistance. They balance what assistance and advocacy mean to the target population, and they decide where to put more weight depending on the circumstances.
On the other hand, Avaaz- an organization flagging the social mobilization through the cybernetic networks, and therefore using one of the most powerful advocacy tools available nowadays- not only denounces the abandon of the Syrian population, not only request to those actors with decision power to act, but also claims to be providing humanitarian aid through their networks in the area. If some years ago the term humanitarian action was born to include both the humanitarian aid and advocacy, perhaps Avaaz may own the “humanitarian activism” label.
It is not the first time Avaaz includes humanitarian assistance in their advocacy activities; they also did it in the case of getting and channelling funds to Buddhist monks in Myanmar when the authorities of that country forbade entry to humanitarian agencies after the Nargis hurricane in 2008. By then, however, Avaaz was not as popular as it is now, and Myanmar was not witnessing the kind conflict taking place currently in Syria.
Obviously it is not the first time activism networks, local or international, assist civilian populations that support one actor or who are trapped on one side of the conflict. But Avaaz is an international organization without any preliminary interest in the conflict; and it makes public all of its aid delivery in its global network. This network has millions of followers, and it labels this kind of help as humanitarian while requesting donations from the public to continue “smuggling” the aid into the conflict situation, with strong statements such as this one:
“Let’s be clear — as embassies close, medical agencies withdraw and journalists pull out, Avaaz has the only network that is both smuggling medical equipment and journalists in and images and information out. The UN has failed, but we can help peaceful democracy heroes like Danny loosen the dictator’s grip on their country. Watch Danny’s urgent appeal and chip in now so we can continue our Arab spring campaigning and support for citizen journalists — if enough of us donate now, we can get aid to the most besieged cities and towns before the next attack.”
Neutrality should be a principle ensuring the entry of humanitarian agencies in any conflict, but we can see that in practice this is not the case. This is the case even to the ICRC who signs up to that principle unambiguously. Perhaps this is the result of the vague neutrality played by many agencies. Or perhaps it is only that no one wants to welcome witnesses to the crimes.
Be that it may, neutrality, like the Responsibility to Protect as well, are not proving to be very useful. Maybe the only way right now to many organizations is clear non-neutrality and to adapt its operational methodology accordingly, supporting to the civil society groups considered right –by them- in each case. Perhaps, on the other hand, those being truly neutral, with all the consequences of the term, may take for granted universal access. Even if there are conflicts where it seems that not even the purest neutrality will take anything for granted.