News - September 2, 2004

Humanitarian help no longer impartial

The distinction between humanitarian aid workers and soldiers has become less clear in recent wars. Workers giving humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan and Iraq have lost their impartiality and therefore fear for their own lives. A code of behaviour was drawn up ten years ago to deal with this situation, and the Disaster Studies group at Wageningen University has looked at whether it is working.

Disaster studies examines effect of code of behaviour


It used to be a clear-cut matter: humanitarian aid workers are noble people who offer help to the victims of war and other disasters, without political or religious motives and purely out of compassion for the suffering of the victims. Impartiality was and is a precondition to carrying out their work. This is laid down in the Geneva Convention, the rules for conducting war decently: impartial aid workers of warring parties must be given access to those in need of help.

According to Dr Thea Hilhorst of the Disaster Studies group, however, the humanitarian ideals have come under increasing pressure in recent years. Western military interventions are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from humanitarian help operations, and as a result the latter are losing their impartial nature. Hilhorst: ‘It started in 1999 in Kosovo, where NATO carried out bombing in the name of humanitarian motives. The same thing happened in Afghanistan and Iraq where western troops invaded under the pretext of ridding the countries of their dictatorships, and restoring human rights and democracy.’


Hearts and minds

Apart from whether or not these missions have been successful, they have led to confusion among humanitarian assistance workers, because the western military interveners use the same arguments as the humanitarian organisations to justify their actions. What’s more, the US army is using humanitarian assistance as a means to win ‘the hearts and minds’ of the Iraqi population. Hilhorst: ‘Both soldiers and aid workers have the same culture. In the eyes of the local population there is no difference between them, they are all white Americans.’ And the question arises, how safe are humanitarian aid workers where they can be taken for soldiers? The number of aid workers who have been shot down is increasing; the aid agencies are convinced of this.


Another problem is created by how the aid agencies are organised. They have to keep themselves afloat and keep donors’ money flowing in, explains Hilhorst. This results for example in an agency sending more help to Iraq than is perhaps necessary because the donors are only prepared to give money to help in that particular country, even though somewhere like Congo might need it more urgently. If the help to Iraq has to go in with an armed escort under the American flag, then so be it. Hilhorst cites even worse examples from Kosovo, where at one point 130 aid agencies were working in one small province. The emergency situation was already long over, but one school got painted four times simply because those funds were available, and by using them, the future of the assistance organisation was ensured.



So how should humanitarian organisations deal with these kinds of dilemmas? In 1994 the Red Cross and a number of other agencies compiled a code of behaviour that was signed by nearly three hundred organisations, in which they pledge that the humanitarian aims come first, that help will be given where it is most needed, regardless of politics or religion, and will not be used as an instrument of foreign policy. But what is that piece of paper worth in the current situation? This is the central question at a conference that will be held in Amsterdam on 20 September, organised by Disaster Studies and a number of aid organisations. It is also the subject of the course in Disaster Studies for this study period.


Hilhorst has examined how the aid organisations regard the code themselves. More than one hundred organisations said they value the code, even though they sometimes have to remind colleague organisations to live up to it. They also say it can be useful to indicate to donors that they should not let their political interests influence their financial contributions. It also helps to reduce the amount of media publicity portraying those in need of help merely as pathetic victims.


However, according to Hilhorst the code relies too much on voluntary compliance. She would like to see a number of minimum requirements for signatories on the agenda at the conference. Suggestions include that signatories should make it clear on their websites that they have signed the code of behaviour and that a complaints procedure should be set up for the target group. The Disaster Studies group lives by its own example: it has drawn up its own code of behaviour for war areas, and students have to sign this before going to do internships in dangerous areas.


Joris Tielens