This op-ed by our Director of Operations was published by Stars And Stripes last January. It is worth reading again for its clear take on the modus operandi of the ICRC and the relevance of its principled approach a decade after military actors and many humanitarian groups decided to blur the lines.
The rise in the killing of aid workers this year points to profound questions that confront aid agencies. As attacks on humanitarians increase and aid becomes more politicized and militarized, I believe we are witnessing a set of paradigm shifts that will deeply affect how organizations provide life-saving aid in war. The stakes could not be higher for humanitarian agencies and the victims of armed-conflict.
Over the past decade, deliberate attacks against humanitarian personnel have become commonplace. They are clearly illegal and unacceptable and must be condemned in the strongest terms. The rejection of humanitarians is, however, also the by-product of policies that integrate humanitarian aid into political and military strategies. For some time now, this has been known as the “blurring of lines” debate: is it appropriate for armed forces to be involved in humanitarian activities?
For the ICRC, the question is not whether the military can contribute to humanitarian efforts; it for example has an obligation under international humanitarian law to evacuate wounded civilians. Aid becoming part of counter-insurgency strategies, however, is much more problematic. I have never forgotten a press statement issued by international forces in Afghanistan a couple of years ago emphasizing that humanitarian assistance was helping them and Afghan forces win the “fight against terrorism”. Such developments lead parties to conflicts and affected populations to associate all humanitarians with specific political and military goals in Afghanistan and beyond. When humanitarian action becomes part of strategies aimed at defeating an enemy, the risks for aid agencies in the field grow exponentially. This is when a bright red line must be drawn.
Heightened security concerns mean reduced access for humanitarian organizations in places where the population may be in dire need of strictly humanitarian assistance. Looking at countries in which the ICRC runs some of its larger operations, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia or Yemen, I am struck by how few aid agencies are actually able to gain regular access to populations and run independent operations. Some may question the value of independent, neutral and impartial humanitarianism in today's wars. However, as an organization present and active in conflict for close to 150 years, including in those fought by insurgents, we know that these very principles enable us to reach, assist and seek to protect those caught in armed conflict.
A little known facet of our activities in Afghanistan illustrates the value of independent humanitarian action. Since 2007, the ICRC has been able to organize safe passage for Afghan Ministry of Health and World Health Organization workers who carry out polio vaccinations for children in the south of the country. This safe space is negotiated with the Taliban and respected by US, NATO, and Afghan security forces. The ICRC regularly facilitates the transfer of wounded and hand-over operations for released hostages in Afghanistan. Operations of this kind are only possible because all parties to the conflict know that the ICRC does not take sides and intervenes on strictly humanitarian grounds.
The time-tested modus operandi of the ICRC is not that of all humanitarian actors. The aid community is very diverse in its approaches and an honest review of its various practices and their effects is needed. I note a growing pessimism in the aid community and nostalgia for what is often called a shrinking “humanitarian space”. In fact, our experience tells us that there is simply no such thing as a pre-established, protected "humanitarian space". Today’s armed conflicts are protracted and fragmented. In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the ICRC interacts with 40 different armed groups or factions. In such situations, the space needed for action is created daily and over time: by building relations; by not taking acceptance for granted; by matching words with deeds; by adopting a principled approach and following it with great discipline. The ICRC, for one, believes in consistent neutrality and independence as a way to build trust.
This is not the only way to engage in humanitarian action but aid agencies cannot have it both ways: asking for armed escorts to reach populations in need one day and criticizing those same military forces for blurring the lines the next cannot be a solution. In fact, this very inconsistency creates further problems in terms of perception and trust. Humanitarians cannot simply point fingers and exclude their own choices and actions from the debate.
Given the stakes, I believe it is essential that political and military decision makers seriously confront the far reaching consequences of making humanitarian aid an integral part of counter-insurgency operations. Humanitarian organizations for their part must debate the consequences of their choices in a more self-critical and honest fashion and genuinely decide how they wish to operate. Failure to do so will continue to weaken the security of humanitarian workers and, more significantly, further isolate and endanger the victims of armed conflict.