The state of being neutral

As the 10-year mark of the Syrian crisis approaches, questions arise about protracted conflict and the humanitarian principle of neutrality.

Photo by Sohaib Ghyasi on Unsplash

At the onset of an emergency, humanitarian agencies provide food, healthcare, and protection from displacement. The response is designed to help people cope with conflict as a parenthesis to peace, as defined by the primary humanitarian action principle: humanity.

However, in situations where conflict becomes protracted — lasting months, years, if not decades — emergency assistance appears insufficient. Life and dignity are not enough to maintain society, industry, and development.

Humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence the four humanitarian principles adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, provide the foundations for humanitarian action.

In a 2020 opinion piece, Hugo Slim argues that “you don’t have to be neutral to be a good humanitarian”, it is acceptable for humanitarians to take sides operationally and morally. He states, “Neutral humanitarianism is not necessarily ethically desirable when we see people as enemies for good reasons. Is it reasonable to expect a Syrian aid worker to be neutral while her community is being bombed? Is it moral for humanitarians to stay neutral in the face of injustice or genocide?”

In these circumstances, the principle of humanity appears almost as a restraint. Humanitarian organisations provide food assistance and emergency health care, but what do you do with displaced children, without education, for months and years?

Should humanitarian organisations preserve life and dignity as well as respond to the needs of education? As we’ve seen in Afghanistan, opening schools might be a trigger of conflict.

Life and dignity might appear to be a very conservative norm. It might be evident that affected populations need agricultural support and education besides food and health assistance, but it might oppose the principle of neutrality.

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