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Why humanitarian impartiality means independent action

Aligned, western governments and the United Nations (UN) are each integrating their diplomatic, military and aid capacities to better achieve their strategic objectives in foreign countries. In combination with foreign interests, these objectives may involve addressing root causes to violent conflict, encouraging stability and promoting sustainable peace.

Although Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) will not comment on foreign policies or initiatives in government or military aid per say, the organization is concerned with the impact that integration strategies, used to forward foreign interests, can have on impartial humanitarian action.

Humanitarian action from an MSF perspective specifically is a temporary medical action that occurs in crisis where there has been a massive disruption in normalcy creating acute medical and life threatening needs. Under these circumstances it is our goal to keep as many people alive as possible, and alleviate as much suffering as possible, while giving space for those we assist in holding on to their dignity.

The character and complexity of the contexts where we confront these crises often places many demands not only on the populations served, but also on those of us attempting to provide this type of assistance. Over the years, there has been a weakening of respect for aid and humanitarian interventions. Increasingly, belligerents of war perceive us as either feeding into or aggravating warring agendas, in much the same way that they view the civilians we aim to support. One only needs to look to places such as Iraq and Afghanistan to see this dynamic.

With many warring actors fragmented along various lines, it has become increasingly difficult to negotiate our presence in a number of settings and maintain the security of MSF staff in areas where access is accomplished. Added to this, there are more and more aid organizations, agencies and other groups involved in the business of aid. Many have different values, goals and strategies that confuse the perception of humanitarian organizations like MSF.

The current trend toward integrating aid with political and military objectives by western governments and the UN further blurs our distinction and, with that, increases the risk of MSF being erroneously seen as part of political or even military agendas. This limits our capacity to engage in unhindered action for those most in need…and explains why we continually strive to seek a unique identity.

Under these types of circumstances, we have always believed that our reliance on principles such as independence and impartiality secures our capacity to safely intervene where the needs are greatest. Due to the nature of the contexts we face, from our experience, humanitarian aid has the greatest impact when humanitarian principles are embraced and used to guide our decision making. Impartiality is among the most important.

When referring to impartiality, MSF refers to non-discrimination in order to identify and respond to those most in need, to those with the highest existing human suffering irrespective of strategic, political, economic, religious or ethnic considerations. By using impartiality as our compass, decisions and actions are taken in a manner similar to casualty triage in an emergency room.

Impartiality on this level reflects the foundations of MSF’s humanitarian action and the type of impartial action that is protected, during war and conflict, by International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Conventions.

To function with impartiality, we require independence in decision-making from other agendas.

This also requires independence in relation to funding. Often, aid agencies such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) heavily rely on Western government-sourced funds; their responses, decisions and capacities are directly influenced by the strategic alignment of the government’s over-arching strategy.

Independence not only involves having the capacity to make decisions without the influence of other agendas, it is also about being perceived on the ground as being distinct from these politicized agendas. If populations perceive that we are not separate in our choices, we risk being seen as non-neutral. We will be equated to parties to the conflict and this will limit our humanitarian space.

Neutrality is not something that is completely obtainable. In fact, it is in tension with impartiality. If an organization is truly impartial and able to go where the need is greatest, chances are their intervention will be geographically on one side of a conflict or another. Their physical presence will not be balanced. And this leaves space for others to perceive that the humanitarian organization is not neutral, thus further reinforcing the need to maintain clear distinction.

No matter how we are seen it is essential that we function with a spirit of neutrality. If we are to choose sides, there is only one that we should choose and that is the civilian population – the women, children, boys, girls and men who are caught in the middle of these wars. If we are not balanced in our presence, then by choosing the civilians and their greatest needs, we are at least able to justify our choices to any warring party on the basis of our humanitarian duty to respond.

Because of the politicized nature of where we work, we need to accept our limits, as well as adhere to our principles as much as possible in order to create as much humanitarian space as needed.

In the first place, humanitarian action is, by necessity, reactive in nature. We are not in a position to address root causes. Agencies that get involved in addressing root causes of conflict often risk further compromising the perception of their neutrality and therefore their ability to safely access populations in highest need. At best, impartial humanitarian aid addresses the consequences of conflict on populations as opposed to the causes.

Second, the path to stability and peace can also have its victims. Tough decisions need to be made, but impartial humanitarian agencies must have space to work that is separate from those decisions. In Angola, for example, the UN focused on development agreements with the Dos Santos government in 2002 right after the war. Meanwhile, the opposing rebel group, UNITA, with their families – men, women, boys, girls – started walking to the garrison towns from the grey areas where they had been located. As they walked toward peace, reconciliation and reunification, many died. They were dying because they had lost their capacity to cope. They were so compromised that they could no longer sustain themselves. With this, there was an instant nutritional crisis. The numbers of people in need were staggering. We quickly set up nutrition programs across the country in the locations where we were already working, as well as the grey zones were people were congregating.

We were heavily criticized by the UN during this period because it was thought that we were frustrating their efforts to obtain development agreements.

If all agencies integrate under the more politicized agendas, who will address the human consequences of the conflict, the next famine or displacement when the agenda itself is prioritized over the lives of those it is meant to facilitate?

We do not envy those who take it upon themselves or have the responsibility to protect populations or address the root causes of turmoil. We recognize that this task is extremely difficult, with often seemingly insurmountable problems, and can involve impossible choices. However, we will not make your difficult decisions easier, but will confront you with the human consequences we encounter in the field that result from your measured solutions.

As governments and the UN each choose to integrate their agencies, we encourage space for a little internal schizophrenia and to allow for diversity of action within the world of international aid. The Canadian government has offices that are tasked to take the humanitarian perspective. Can you allow them the independent thought and action necessary to critique from an impartial, humanitarian perspective? In the field, can you allow for diversity of action? Agencies like MSF, as well as the ICRC, recognize and passionately believe in the value of impartial, humanitarian action that must be independent from UN mission objectives or policies of aligned countries. We hope that we are not viewed as ‘spoilers’ but that the human value of our action is understood and appreciated, and the space for this action is given and respected.

Marilyn McHarg is general director of Médecins Sans Frontières Canada.

Author: Marilyn McHarg from the Sept/Oct 2007 issue published

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