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Neutrality: an ethical or a pragmatic issue?

September 29, 2012

Last week I took part, with colleagues from Conciliation Resources (CR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), in a debate held at the Imperial War Museum in London. Chaired by Tim Jacoby of the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, the debate was constructed around the issue of neutrality as seen from the perspective of humanitarian and peacebuilding organisations. In an interesting discussion, what struck me in particular was how instrumentally each organisation seems to view the idea of ‘acting neutrally’.

Neutrality – studiously not-taking-sides or pronouncing on the rights and wrongs of the behaviour of governments and other parties to conflict – is sacred to the ICRC, because only by remaining studiously neutral can they obtain the laissez-passer they need from governments and rebel groups, allowing them to perform their vital humanitarian functions. For CR, a peacebuilding organisation with a strong focus on mediation and dialogue, neutrality is an important public good which, when genuinely practised by those supporting peace negotiations, enhances the power and strength of their ‘good offices’, and thus the prospects for peaceful outcomes. For MSF, neutrality is a fiction: by intervening in a humanitarian disaster one is immediately engaging in a political act and – however slightly – affecting the outcomes in a way that goes beyond the purely humanitarian, but is not something to dwell on, as it gets in the way of their critical mission, saving lives. And for International Alert, where I work: although we don’t discuss neutrality often, it is quite clear to us that peacebuilding is an intrinsically political enterprise, and that by espousing the values and cause of peace we are not neutral, because we clearly believe that certain outcomes are better than others.

I hope I have not misrepresented the perspectives of my fellow panellists, in highlighting merely one aspect of what I heard each of them say. While we had different positions on acting neutrally, all panellists agreed that as NGOs it made good sense to act impartially towards different players in a conflict situation, i.e. to be seen by all sides not to take sides, and to garner a reputation for so doing in order to maintain the space to operate.

What struck me was that all four of us described our approach to neutrality in terms of its relation to our specific mission and the outcomes and aims we seek to attain, meaning that we all took what I would call an instrumental view of the issue. And this implies that neutrality, far from being the much-vaunted ethical principle it is sometimes made out to be in humanitarian circles, is actually much more of a pragmatic choice, even – especially? –  for the Red Cross.


A second aspect of the debate was, for me, far more challenging. The chair asked all the panellists – who were united in their commitment to peace – how we felt about the utility of violence. Were there occasions when we felt that violence was the right option? This was difficult. I work for an NGO whose raison d’être is building peace; I know from the (albeit victor’s) history I was taught at school in the UK that peace of sorts has often been attained through violence, and am not myself a pacifist… I can certainly think of situations to which the rational and ethical response involves committing acts of violence, not merely in defence but also to obtain a political change where other means have failed. But can I imagine a situation in which the peacebuilding organisation for which I work would explicitly support the use of violent means for peaceful ends?

As a panellist at that point I had to disassociate myself from my organisation and say that while I could personally support the use of violence in some circumstances, and particularly when applied by a legitimately elected government to provide security to its own citizens and/or following the rules of just war, I could not imagine International Alert coming out explicitly to condone violence. Alert’s published Programming Framework – the core philosophy of our approach to peacebuilding – says “though we recognise that there are times when fighting is justified, this is a last resort that is best avoided”, and I cannot recall a time when I was in a group of colleagues discussing or agreeing that a given situation where we work had reached the point where fighting was indeed justified, much less saying so publicly. In practice, we are an organisation which believes not only in peaceful outcomes but also in peaceful means of reaching them – and certainly as far as our own involvement is concerned. And I think this is true of pretty much all international NGOs operating in conflict-affected places.

But consider this: international humanitarian NGOs have been evolving apace over the past couple of decades. They have moved from being rather technical instruments of service delivery, to understand more and more, and embrace in their practice, the essentially political nature of the issues on which they intervene, and of the interventions themselves. As part of this journey they have increasingly embraced a campaigning and advocacy role, in their countries of origin, internationally, and in the countries where they intervene. They are, without a doubt, far more switched on and more interesting than they once were. Some of them sail pretty close to the wind – inevitable perhaps, when engaging in politics in and around situations of humanitarian intervention and underdeveloped and fragile contexts where poverty and exclusion abound.

At the time of the Biafran War, MSF’s founders knew they were committing a profoundly political act by intervening to save lives. The humanitarian imperative led them to act politically. At the time it was new, yet would seem normal today. NGOs continue to evolve and become yet more political, and yet more conscious of the nuances and subtleties of the contexts where they intervene. Some have found themselves – perhaps unwittingly – acting as the “humanitarian wing” of western armies – the way some of the NGOs collaborated with Washington in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion is good evidence of this. NGOs get sorely frustrated by the inability of politicians to resolve armed conflicts which seem tractable. So far, this has led them to respond with ever-increasing political advocacy, and in some cases this has been quite effective. The Iraq Body Count is a simple and effective example. The Civil Society Organisations for Peace in Northern Uganda coalition was formed by a group of frustrated service delivery and human rights organisations saying enough is enough, and I believe it had a significant impact in changing international and Ugandan attitudes to the never-ending LRA war.

But the political tools available in conflict are often too blunt to make enough of a difference. Just as politicians at times find themselves using military force to pursue ‘politics by other means’, I wonder how these increasingly political NGOs will end up. Many humanitarian NGOs – as distinct from peacebuilders or human rights organisations – have long accepted an overlap with armed forces: think of NGOs protected by militias in Somalia, or armed military escorts for humanitarian convoys in almost any other war zone. As their political evolution continues, can we envisage, at some point in the future, humanitarian NGOs operating a paramilitary wing? Or will they from time to time, but outside the public glare, raise funds from politically interested billionaires to hire Executive Outcomes to intervene with force, as a rational and ethical response to the lack of political will for peace which they so often encounter in long-running, vested-interest, status quo-reinforcing civil wars where they so often find themselves sticking a band-aid on a festering wound? 

OK, I know it’s nonsense. Just a thought experiment and a mere blog. But it is intriguing to wonder how the political evolution of values-based international NGOs will continue.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Mark Clark permalink
    November 1, 2012 7:06 am

    Thank you for another very interesting and thought-provoking post! I want to add some thoughts that I see as relevant to the discussion of violence. In my own peace building work, operating at grass roots in communities to address very local issues of conflict and violence, we find it helpful to recognise that conflict itself is normal and natural but that how we respond to it or manage it can lead to positive, constructive outcomes or negative, destructive ones. So we make a clear distinction between conflict and violence, and we then unpack violence into direct violence (visible and physical: eg murder, fighting, rape etc) and underlying structural violence (unfairness through social, legal or political structures of discrimination, exclusion, etc) and even deeper cultural violence (deeply held values and issues of relational identity (“us” and “them”), promulgated through narratives and cultural artefacts (bed-time stories, celebrated role models, traditions, media perspectives, religious teachings, etc).

    We understand cultural violence as legitimising structural and direct violence, and so we seek to engage at the level of cultural violence. In doing so, we promote “active tolerance”. This goes beyond mere tolerance, which could be merely passive acceptance of an unreasonable, unfair, and undesired situation. It requires action, which ultimately requires implementing processes of change to address issues of structural and cultural violence.

    Reading your post I was struck by the thought that in some ways there is an argument that structural and cultural violence can only be addressed through counter forces of corresponding violence. These are forces for change but the “force” required is, in my view, a force of a type that involves “active tolerance”, ie action to “combat” structural violence (an example could reverse discrimination, or structures to exclude those who promote or commit direct violence) and cultural violence (for example by promoting new narratives and new cultural artefacts that help fragment polarisation and respect and embrace diversity as a strength). But I believe such actions (and the “force” used) should never involve direct violence by a NGO.

    So in short, yes, I believe building long term sustainable peace involves “combating” structural and cultural violence with countermeasures and non-directly-violent “force”, but it is neither within a peace building NGO’s philosophy nor skill-set or expertise to use direct violence. I think most of us would accept, though, the individual human right (and by extension, the international legal doctrine of a just war and the responsibility to protect) to use reasonable and proportionate direct violence in self-defence as a response to direct violence. Simply I believe it is important to allow the institutional application of such justified force to be conducted by those experts trained and officially mandated (within the political governance structures of their community/society) to do so.

    Mark Clark

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