For most non-governmental humanitarian agencies (NGHAs), the principle of impartiality is unambiguous even if it is sometimes difficult to apply, especially in rapidly changing situations. However, for the UN agencies, particularly where the UN is involved in peace keeping activities as the result of a Security Council resolution, it is not clear if the UN is in position act in an impartial manner if one of the parties is in violation of terms of the UN Charter.
Problems may arise due to the fact that most NGHAs rely in varying degrees on government donors. Thus for some organizations it is difficult to maintain independence from their donors and not be confused in the field with governments who may be involved in the hostilities. The ICRC, has set the example for maintaining its independence (and neutrality) by raising its funds from governments through the use of separate annual appeals for headquarters costs and field operations.
The principle of neutrality was specifically addressed to the Red Cross Movement to prevent it from not only taking sides in a conflict, but not to “engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.” The principle of neutrality was left out of the Red Cross/NGO code because some of the NGHAs, while committed to giving impartial assistance, were not ready to forgo their lobbying on justice issues related to political and ideological questions.
United Nations General Assembly Resolution 46/182 lists the principle of neutrality, alongside the principles of humanity and impartiality in its annex as a guide to the provision of humanitarian assistance. The resolution is designed to strengthen human response of the UN system, and it clearly applies to the UN agencies.
Neutrality can also apply to humanitarian actions of a state. “Neutrality remains closely linked with the definition which introduced the concept into international law to designate the status of a State which decided to stand apart from an armed conflict. Consequently, its applications under positive law still depend on the criteria of abstention and impartiality which have characterized neutrality from the outset.”
The application of the word neutrality to humanitarian aid delivered by UN agencies or even governments can be confusing. GA Resolution 46/182 proclaims the principle of neutrality, yet as an inter-governmental political organization, the UN is often engaged in controversies of a political nature. According to this interpretation, the UN agency or a government can provide neutral humanitarian aid as long as it does it impartially, based upon need alone.
Today, the word neutrality is widely used within the humanitarian community, usually to mean the provision of humanitarian aid in an impartial and independent manner, based on need alone. Few international NGOs have curtailed work on justice or human rights issues because of their commitment to neutrality.
If a warring party believes, for example, that an agency is favoring the other side, or that it is an agent of the enemy, access to the victims may be blocked and the lives of humanitarian workers may be put in danger. If one of the parties perceives that an agency is trying to spread another religious faith, there may be a hostile reaction to their activities.
Article 9 of the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief states: “We hold ourselves accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources;” and thus identifies the two major stake holders: donors and beneficiaries. However, traditionally humanitarian agencies have tended to practice mainly “upward accountability”, i.e. to their donors.
The experience of many humanitarian agencies during the Rwandan Genocide, led to a number of initiatives designed to improve humanitarian assistance and accountability, particularly with respect to the beneficiaries. Examples include the Sphere Project, ALNAP , Compas , the People In Aid Code of Best Practice , and the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International, which runs a “global quality insurance scheme for humanitarian agencies."
A number of reports which identified the sexual exploitation of refugees in west Africa prodded the humanitarian community to work together in examining the problem and to take measures to prevent abuses. In July 2002, the UN’s Interagency Standing Committee (IASC) adopted a plan of action which stated: Sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian workers constitute acts of gross misconduct and are therefore grounds for termination of employment. The plan explicitly prohibited the “Exchange of money, employment, goods, or services for sex, including sexual favours or other forms of humiliating, degrading or exploitative behaviour” The major NGHAs as well the UN agencies engaged in humanitarian response committed themselves to setting up internal structures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries.
Structures internal to the Red Cross Movement monitor compliance to the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross.
The RC/NGO Code is self-enforcing. The SCHR carries out peer reviews among its members which look in part at the issue of compliance with principles set out in the RC/NGO Code
The NGO, Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International, is working to make humanitarian organizations more accountable, especially to the beneficiaries.
Peaced out: Peter Beinart warns that American Jews must refocus on the democratic and humanitarian principles of Zionism before Israel becomes simply another despotic Middle Eastern state.(The Crisis of Zionism)(Book review)
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