Contrasting views – including ‘Neutrality’ in the CHS
Anne de Riedmatten & Nigel Timmins
There was heated debate about whether or not to include the principle of Neutrality during the consultation process which accompanied the elaboration of the CHS. In the end, the decision was made to retain it (along with the principles of Humanity, Impartiality and Independence), but with the following caveat: “Some organisations, while committed to giving impartial assistance and not taking sides in hostilities, do not consider that the principle of neutrality precludes undertaking advocacy on issues related to accountability and justice.” In the "Point of View section" of the special edition on Quality, we asked Anne de Riedmatten, 1st Secretary, Humanitarian Affairs Section, Swiss Permanent Mission to the UN and Nigel Timmins, Deputy Humanitarian Director at Oxfam GB to explain the position and reasoning of their respective organisations. Despite their contrasting views on the issue of ‘Neutrality, both organizations support the Core Humanitarian Standard and hope that it will be very widely adopted.
Anne de Riedmatten: the Swiss government was adamant to include Neutrality in the document. According to us, the principles of Humanity, Neutrality, Impartiality and Independence are critical in building trust and acceptance with authorities, armed groups and communities.
While the principle of Humanity is often seen as overarching, the principles of Independence, Impartiality and Neutrality are operational guidelines to gain acceptance, ensure effective humanitarian assistance and protection as well as to promote rapid and unimpeded access. It is also a very important principle in regard to the safety and security of humanitarian actors. In this sense, the principle of Neutrality is key since it helps to distinguish humanitarian assistance and protection from other forms of relief actions provided by other actors, such as armed forces, armed groups and private corporations.
The core principles, including Neutrality, provide humanitarians with an operational foundation that helps them distinguish their work and activities from other stakeholders and therefore protects them from aligning their humanitarian engagement with political and military objectives.
We fully understand the challenges of implementing the core principles. Therefore, humanitarian action needs to remain highly pragmatic in practice. The combination of both approaches, the principles in action together with the field reality, including its constraints, is a powerful vector: it helps to create and sustain a humanitarian space where civilians are protected.
We see in the CHS, which now includes Neutrality, a real opportunity to highlight the true added value of a Principled humanitarian approach, even while recognizing the challenges of putting the Principles into practice and the pragmatic approach which is therefore needed to make it work.
Nigel Timmins: Oxfam would have preferred not to include neutrality in the CHS for two reasons.
Firstly, it risks limiting the universal adoption of the standard which it is hoped will be used by any actor in a humanitarian setting, not just the traditional humanitarian sector. The standard is to be a "core" or minimum standard and so only really needs two of the values - humanity and impartiality. Obviously any organisation may choose to hold itself to further principles but neutrality and independence are derived, as described by J. Pictet in 1979, to better manage how humanitarian actors are perceived and so improve access to those in need. In practice many actors are neither neutral nor independent but still deliver life saving assistance. For example, the State should meet its obligations and ensure the needs of citizens are met, but any government is unlikely to be neutral and cannot be independent in the way the principle means. In the context of a conflict we would wish any occupying military force to meet the basic human rights of populations under their control despite clearly not being neutral. We want such actors and others – faith institutions, the private sector - to adopt the quality commitments set out in the CHS. We do not want them to dismiss such quality standards because they do not see themselves apriori as humanitarian actors. Institutions providing aid may have political objectives, military aims or simply allegiances that render them not neutral but we would still wish their assistance, as a minimum, to be based purely on the needs of the affected and given without discrimination by ethnicity, sex, age, faith, etc.
Secondly, by including neutrality we risk fuelling the accusation of hypocrisy. The most widely accepted definitions of neutrality - those held by the IFRC and UN GA include the phrase "... engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature." This is difficult to uphold if trying to undertake a rights based approach. Few humanitarian actors would have any problem with agreeing to not take sides in a conflict, but in many cultures articulating the need to respect rights is to engage in controversial areas such as gender relations, issues of ethnicity, freedom of expression and so on. Some argue this second phrase in the definition does not restrict campaigning but, for example, to campaign to limit arms flows into a conflict zone is likely to be seen as controversial by the parties to that conflict and their constituencies. Increasingly, in many countries, even to highlight a humanitarian crisis such as a famine is seen as controversial. The value of neutrality is in the trust it builds through shaping how others perceive us. The risk is that by claiming to be neutral but then speaking out will lead to accusations of hypocrisy and so undermine the trust we seek.