Iraq: NCCI's Weekly Highlight 31 May 2007


"Put neutrality to the test of the Iraq humanitarian context"

Yesterday, in Amman, the author of the Humanitarian Agenda 2015's Iraq case study, Greg Hansen, presented the main findings of the country report.

Humanitarian Agenda 2015 (HA 2015) is a policy research project aimed at equipping the humanitarian enterprise to more effectively address emerging challenges. HA 2015 focuses on the challenges and compromises that are likely to affect humanitarian action worldwide in the next decade. The issues under study are organized and analyzed around four interrelated themes: the universality of humanitarianism, the implications of terrorism and counter-terrorism for humanitarian action, the trend toward coherence between humanitarian and political agendas, and the security of humanitarian personnel and the beneficiaries of humanitarian action (1).

The Iraq final report will be available next week, but during the presentation, one of the main findings highlighted by the author caught our attention. It regards the universality of humanitarian action.

Through the numerous interviews conducted by the courageous team who worked inside Iraq, it appears that "Neutrality is not an abstract notion for Iraqis". That is very good news, because in the current Iraq humanitarian context such a finding was not evident.

Indeed, amongst those who are promoting or working in the humanitarian field, whether they are Iraqis or foreigners, neutrality does not always appear at the top of the agenda, and the understanding of what is or should be neutral might often be subject to debate.

What kind of neutrality regulates agencies and organisations that are protected by MNFI? Would these agencies accept to be protected by other forces on the ground? Conversely, would organisations protected by militias accept to be under MNF-I or Governmental protection?

How is the neutrality of an organisation that mainly receives funds from one side of the belligerents perceived?

And, above all, where is the neutrality when agencies only deal for access or humanitarian support with the Government of Iraq which is a de facto part of the conflict? Why is it taboo for them to deal with militias and non-state armed forces that are even sometimes linked with official authorities?

We are conscious that such questions might shock some readers. Yet, neutrality by its very nature requires an equal treatment of all sides of the conflict. As such, it is worthwhile to wonder why the perception of neutrality is as blurred as it is for some stakeholders in Iraq. It is perhaps the only way to find solutions to improve in practice the neutrality of humanitarian actors.

Perceptibly, the post 9/11 discourses of fear and over-security that are linked with Global War On Terror (GWOT) policies have an important effect on the current reality on the field. Obviously, many westerners today hesitate to oppose the Orwellian-like propaganda and creed that "you are with us or you are against us".

Yet, in adhering, or refusing to oppose to the above-mentioned GWOT policy, agencies and organisations have lost their neutrality and, in doing so, have jeopardised their credibility and are now more at risk to be targeted by other groups that would consider them as part of the "global" conflict.

Additionally, this situation has de facto increased fear, cultural and contextual misunderstandings, and, in some cases, even racism and withdrawals of personal or cultural expression.

A complete study would be necessary to find all the reasons for such a loss of neutrality as it can certainly not be reduced to the above-mentioned comment. In some cases it was certainly a choice, while, in the specific case of Iraq, the high level of politicisation of the humanitarian context underlined by most of observers definitively played a role in the current lack of neutrality of various humanitarian actors. The complete HA 2015 report will certainly give us some answers to such a question. Hopefully, it will also explore some concrete solutions to put neutrality as one of the most important principles of humanitarian organisations.

Waiting for a deeper analysis, some issues can or have already been raised to increase the neutrality of humanitarian actors, and, therefore, to improve the whole humanitarian intervention in Iraq:

- In agencies that deal with both political and humanitarian aspects, a clear distinction between the two orientations should be defined. Indeed, political support cannot be neutral and would consequently hamper the necessary neutrality of humanitarian actions.

- Break the apparent taboo, and start to consider possibilities to engage with others actors as plausible interlocutors. Of course such an action would concretely oppose the GWOT machine that labels all opposition forces as "terrorists". On the other hand, it might also be perceived as problematic for those who refuse to engage in talks with MNF-I or the GoI. But it appears in many situations to be the only way to save lives. Dealing with all forces on the ground is something that is accepted, or at least considered as normal and necessary for humanitarian action in conflict situations worldwide. It should not be any different within the Iraq context.

- As already requested, a high level Civil Military Coordinator with a civilian and humanitarian background might help increase acceptance of the notion that organisations that engage in discussions or negotiations for humanitarian access with militias are not automatically thought to be for or against official troops.

Of course, this is only a subset of propositions and they do not claim the conceit of being infallible. Nor are they the only solutions. Local solutions, creative and innovative are certainly more preferable as better answers that speak to the Iraqi nightmare. In fact, many NGOs and humanitarian actors have not stood idly by to wait to deal with all parties and have instead concretely begun to experiment with neutrality on the ground as their only way to access the most vulnerable.

But other organisations should join such movements soon. There is still time for it. At any rate, it is not too late. It is what Iraqis tell us, through the HA 2015's finding, accepting and acknowledging neutrality as a universal principle of humanitarian aid. That's why it is good news.



(1) Country studies provide the basis for analysis. Studies completed so far include Afghanistan, Burundi, Colombia, Liberia, Northern Uganda, Sudan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Others planned for completion in 2007 include Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq. Completed country studies and a preliminary report, Humanitarian Agenda 2015: Principles, Power, and Perceptions, are available on the project's website at: