Questioning Neutrality: Can humanitarian organizations afford to remain neutral when they witness war crimes?

Seven things we learned from our December panel

Written by
Rachel Kiddell-Monroe and Claudia Blume
Published on
Jan 10, 2024

The conflict in Gaza has been a watershed moment for many humanitarians. In light of the killing of more than 23,000 civilians (over 70% women and children) and the indiscriminate bombing of houses and infrastructure, hospitals and schools, the displacement of the majority of people trapped in the Gaza Strip and a siege that has left them without sufficient food, water, and access to medicines, humanitarian organizations are increasingly being urged by their staff to take a bolder public stance about those violations of humanitarian law. Many are accusing their employers of being too muted in their responses to Gaza and other sites of war crimes and human rights abuses – such as Sudan and Myanmar - or even of being complicit when they avoid calling out the perpetrators of war crimes.

Can humanitarians afford to remain neutral when international humanitarian law is being violated?

Neutrality is one of the humanitarian principles originally defined by the International Committee of the Red Cross more than 150 years ago. It is regarded as a tool to support the primary humanitarian principles of humanity and impartiality. Over the years, more and more humanitarians have challenged its unquestioned use. Hugo Slim, ethicist and former head of policy at the ICRC argues that you don’t have to be neutral to be a good humanitarian. As he says “Neutral humanitarian action is one version of humanitarianism – not the only version.”

The question is why humanitarian organizations insist on being neutral in some contexts, such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and not in others, such as the war in Ukraine. Neutrality is not applied equally by humanitarian organizations in response to war crimes, raising questions of equity in humanitarian response. The current conflict in Gaza, against the backdrop of 75 years of occupation and human rights violations by Israel, has brought this contradiction into sharp relief.  

As part of SeeChange’s goal to stimulate a reimagining of humanitarian action, we invited humanitarian experts to discuss this topic in a panel discussion in December 2023. You can watch a recording here.

Here are our seven key takeaways from the discussion:

  1. Neutrality is a choice, not a sacred principle. 

Neutrality is just one of the tools of humanitarian action and it’s up to humanitarian organizations how and when to use it. Choosing neutrality needs to be based on an analysis of each context. In the current conflict in Gaza, for example, there is no respect for international humanitarian law and it should therefore be imperative for humanitarian organizations to call out these violations. Humanitarian principles were created at a particular time in history in a particular context - when the ‘rules of the game’ change, we must be open to changing them too. When civilians and humanitarian actors are a direct target, when the rules of war are broken, the value and ethics of remaining neutral must be re-evaluated.

  1. Local actors often have no voice when it comes to decisions about neutrality.

Local staff and partner organizations of international aid groups often face pressure to avoid political engagement and speaking out, especially if they want to access funding. This reflects ongoing colonial attitudes not only about funding but that also presumes that local actors don’t fully understand neutrality and are not able to practice it.  This means decisions on speaking out remain at headquarters level with national and local actors having no say. 

  1. We need solidarity with humanitarian resistance 

Too often, crisis-affected communities are portrayed by aid organizations as helpless, dependent victims. Their voices are often absent in conflicts and situations of injustice while internationally mobile staff speak out on their behalf.  

Increasingly we see community-led organizations that provide not only humanitarian assistance but also champion humanitarian resistance. In Myanmar, for example, grassroots networks have been highly effective in providing humanitarian assistance to hard-to-reach communities that the international sector cannot get to. At the same time, there's also been a mobilization of resistance across ethnic lines and religions, challenging the structures of power in the country. Humanitarian organizations need to commit to solidarity, to resist and challenge the structures of oppression. 

  1. There are risks of abandoning neutrality. 

Most importantly, there is the risk of losing access to crisis-affected people when an organization speaks out. It may also endanger the lives of its staff. Less openly discussed, is the concern organizations have that they may lose donors. As humanitarian organizations are increasingly run like businesses, decisions to strictly adhere to neutrality are made to avoid alienating donors, even if they internally disagree with what is happening. Speaking out can and does cost donors, but it can also attract new ones. 

  1. There are risks of NOT abandoning neutrality. 

Neutrality can prop up systems of injustice and perpetuate conflict. In Gaza, for example, the occupation has been going on for 75 years. While remaining neutral has brought some benefits to the population, such as access to prisoners by the ICRC, it has not brought about any long-term positive changes and on the contrary, has arguably prolonged the encampment and siege of Palestinians. 

  1. Speaking out challenges impunity.

While some people may question whether humanitarian organizations have a role to play in calling out violations of humanitarian law and injustices, doing so has an impact. Naming the genocide in Rwanda, and now Palestine, forces states to assume their duties under the Genocide Convention. Exposing the treatment of migrants in the Mediterranean and Central America highlighted state violations of the Refugee Conventions, and publicly condemning the bombing of hospitals in Afghanistan exposed state breaches of International Humanitarian law.  Advocacy does not always mean speaking out publicly - organizations can, and do, advocate behind closed doors.  

  1. A shift is taking place in humanitarian organizations - even if it’s slow.

Many organizations have started to transform internally in the past few years. The killing of George Floyd in May 2020 was one of the triggers that led to calls for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the decolonization of humanitarian organizations, especially by a younger generation of humanitarians. Increasingly, staff are demanding that their leaders speak out against injustices and structural oppression, asking them to put pressure on world leaders to take action, instead of just asking for funding to respond to crises. 

Thank you to Xili Fernandez, Dustin Barter, and Juan Carlos Arteaga for contributing their insights and experience to this important debate.

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