Neutrality, Impartiality, Complicity

I grew up in Geneva, so perhaps it’s fitting that when I think of the term ‘neutral’ the first thought that comes to mind is that of Switzerland. Indeed when the nascent International Committee of the Red Cross (and now, Red Crescent, with a Red Star of David and a Red Lion thrown in for good measure) chose its emblem, it took the colours of that country- a white cross on a red field- and simply inverted it. Today it is among the very best-known symbols of the world. It represents impartial assistance to any injured party, regardless of creed, colour or context. Its standing under International Humanitarian Law grants its bearers access to the most intense battlefields around the world to rescue people in need, and still today the ICRC strives for an ethical stand at the very top of the humanitarian industry worldwide.

red_crossIt is fitting then that humanitarian agencies since then have taken their lead from the ICRC in establishing their own charter of ethics. In the early 1990s, a consortium of international actors drew up what is broadly known as the Red Cross Code of Conduct (its full title reflects the role of non-governmental organizations in disaster relief as well). This is a voluntary code to which almost all of the major international non-governmental humanitarian agencies are signatories to and which are seen as guiding principles in the application of their assistance around the world.

The Code lays out ten points, of which foremost is what is known as the Humanitarian Imperative- that is, meeting the needs of people in war- and disaster-afflicted settings is more important than anything else when making decisions. The following three statements all reflect the nature of NGOs as impartial in how they deliver aid (aid delivered on the basis of need alone, not religion, creed, race, political affiliation or any other factor); neutral (aid will not be used as an instrument to further a political or religious cause); and independent (aid agencies will endeavour not to be used as instruments of government policy).

These principles are great… in principle. The practicalities of walking them in a dynamic, complicated and often hostile setting is far from easy.


They exist, of course, to protect. They protect first and foremost the people who these agencies exist to help. They ensure that aid agencies do not abuse people who are, by very nature of being in need, very open to manipulation or opression. They also provide the possibility that through neutrality, aid agencies can work on two sides of the same battle-line to delivery assistance. But they also protect the aid workers themselves, to ensure that they are not mistaken for parties to a conflict and targeted by one side or another. In such a way, these are more than just academic standpoints based on some idealistic ethic of what is right and what is wrong; they are tried and tested examples of principled pragmatism- we do what we believe is right, and what we believe is right helps us to accomplish what we need to do.

Unfortunately, the world is not black and white. This is never truer than in a conflict zone. Truth gets twisted, by all parties. Information is scarce, its accuracy tainted. People are not stupid; aid is a powerful resource and it can be manipulated by politicians, commanders and recipients alike. And, of course, not all humanitarians are in it for sheer altruism.

The question I struggle with most in this line of work, however, is how to maintain that independence and neutrality in an unjust setting. The world is not black and white. But neither is it entirely shades of grey. Sitting at a computer screen in some western capital sifting through briefings and media reports, it can be difficult to come to terms with what is happening on the ground. But once you get onto the ground, talk to a few different people on both sides of the conflict, and get a feel for what is going on, a lot of the pieces fall into place. That’s not to say that solutions are clearly evident, or that there aren’t bad things happening on both sides of the border. But the uncertainties about the ethics of right and wrong dwindle.


What do you do, for example, when you’re working in a country whose government is oppressing its people? Those people may have taken actions that are thoroughly unjustifiable- launching terror attacks that kill innocent civilians, or carrying out armed raids, or blowing up a military convoy. They are not necessarily in the right. But that doesn’t mean that a disproportionate response from a powerful government is therefore morally acceptable.

But then you reach a quandry. You begin to understand the ins and outs of the situation. You come to terms with the atrocities instigated both by the rebels and by the government. You sift through the hyperbole and the propaganda, and you listen to the testimonies of the mothers and fathers limping out of the conflict zone. What do you do with that?

You can speak out, of course. After all, we’re humanitarian agencies. Our number one priority is meeting the needs of people. But if you speak out, then what? Are you compromising your neutrality by taking sides? And if you criticize the government, what happens next? Do you and your organization get turfed out of the country? Do your national staff-members get harrassed, detained, maybe even killed? And if that happens, if you have to close your operation down, how can you keep providing support to the people who need it so much, perhaps tens of thousands of people who you’re trying to help?

Or do you keep quiet? Do you keep working through, providing the assistance that keeps people that little bit better off in the middle of a horrible situation? Do you acknowledge that the world is an unjust place, and let the bullets and bombs of manipulated media whizz past low over your head and focus on the task at hand?

And then how long do you keep doing that for? How many people have to die before it’s time to speak up? Is it ten? A hundred? A hundred thousand? At what point do you acknowledge that, even if it means the organization might have to close its operation, to remain silent will mean becoming complicit in some terrible act; a slaughter; a war-crime; a genocide?


It’s something humanitarian agencies around the world have wrestled with for decades. Some, obviously, build their entire portfolio around speaking out- and in doing so, become the tacit voices for the rest of us who might like to make noise but who have chosen a more practical line for the time-being. Organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, who champion the voiceless in horrific circumstances. Others, even operational NGOs, choose to maintain their neutrality and impartiality at any cost, but routinely find themselves turfed out of countries for their ethical position. Others still choose to remain in the context, doing what they can in line with the drive to help and struggling to define the appropriate trigger-point that will have them change their stance. Any of these positions results in some sort of compromise- and perhaps its good that different organizations take different lines, because it means that there are always actors to carry different aspects of that compromise.

I find myself in this situation now. I’ve been doing some media work recently, and around a highly sensitive context. If I say the wrong thing in public, criticize the wrong actor, I stand to compromise our access to people who desperately need our help, and so I toe a line. I hesitate when given the opportunity to place blame where it belongs. I dance a rhetorical jig around the more pointed questions, stick to my key messages, and say almost nothing about the true nature of the context I’m in.

It makes me feel dirty.

The next day I read the local papers and see more bile being spewed about what is happening, and I want to find somebody to scream at, just to make me feel better.

I want to get back on the radio and tell everybody exactly what it’s like and make them understand.

But I can’t. Not as long as we want to actually help these people.

My fear, perhaps my biggest fear doing this sort of work, is waking up one morning and finding that I’ve somehow become complicit in some terrible feat of cruelty through my silence. I think of people in Rwanda in 1994 who had to stand by and watch a slaughter of unimaginable proportions unfold with their full knowledge, unable to act. Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN peacekeepers in Rwanda at the time, catalogues his experiences in his book Shake Hands with the Devil. He came away a broken man, as somebody who had the potential to ease the killing, but was stopped by a larger organization that tied his hands. There are many other conflicts today where similar concerns are raised, where people cry genocide and others stand by and watch, where humanitarians make the choice- to speak out, and risk losing the possibility of contributing to a solution, or remaining silent in the name of assistance but risk destroying their own souls through quiet complicity with evil.

For the time being, I understand the line that I have to walk, although I wish I didn’t have to walk it. It weighs heavily. I’d dare say for the time being it’s the hardest part of what I have to do in my job. And I can only hope that when the dust from the shellfire settles, and the craters are filled in, and the landmines diffused and the mass-graves uncovered, that I don’t have to carry around with me the knowledge that I didn’t speak out when I could have.


5 comments on “Neutrality, Impartiality, Complicity

  1. Pingback: Neutrality, Impartiality, Complicity « WanderLust

  2. so, now you know why you are in “humanitarian and emergency affairs”, rather than, say, “advocacy”

    If you haven’t already, it might be worthwhile to check out David Rieff’s book “A Bed for the Night” or this post on “Blood & Milk”:

    Keep your head down…

  3. Definitely food for thought.
    I think in a situation like this it’s not only a question about speak out or not. It’s about when and to whom. It does come at a price, at best of limiting your work and at worst more lives, this time closer to home.
    I think the rabbit hole goes far. Wait until you have key information and somebody that you trust and you feel could be constructive with. Then reassess if you are ready.

    But this is all high level philosophy of course. Who to trust, and sometimes our gut leads us astray too. Where does self preservation stop and humanitary necessity begin…

    But media is just media, and there you’re sadly better off playing by the rules, no? Got a punching bag mate?

    I know cities where students have a screaming match 10pm daily… will odd and slightly mad I’d like to see the effects of something like this globally 😛

  4. Pingback: To Aid or Not To Aid? « WanderLust

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