Humanitarian aid workers compromised their neutrality during the 90s; and in the 'war on terror', many are now paying the ultimate price
May 7, 2004
By Conor Foley
Last Saturday, a battle between police and insurgents in an eastern province of Afghanistan left several officers and one civilian dead. US helicopters fired rockets to defend a guard post, and the attackers were eventually driven off.
Such attacks are almost daily occurrences; but what made this one unusual was that it took place in a school supported by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, non-governmental organisation (NGO), which had not been informed that a security post had been set up inside its project.
The conflict has underlined the dilemma facing humanitarian agencies attempting to maintain impartiality. More than 20 aid workers have been killed in Afghanistan since January - more than last year's total. Two Afghan staff were killed last week in Kandahar; and two days ago two British members of a security company and their Afghan translator were murdered in the eastern province of Nuristan while doing logistical work for the UN voter registration programme.
Aid workers are now depicted by supporters of the previous Taliban regime - which relied heavily on humanitarian assistance when in power - as part of a western plot to subjugate the Muslim world. One survivor of a recent massacre - in which five aid workers were killed - said that their attackers told them the shootings were a reprisal for the treatment of detainees in Guantánamo Bay.
International NGOs have largely been driven out of Iraq; and travelling around Kabul today you might think there had been a similar pullout, as so many NGO workers travel incognito. The humanitarian emblems designed to protect them now identify them as legitimate targets.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for NGOs to argue that their work has nothing to do with politics. Since the advent of the Bush administration and September 11, the "humanitarian space" in which aid workers can operate has been steadily shrinking. During the 1990s some aid NGOs moved away from their traditional position of neutrality by calling for western military intervention, for humanitarian purposes, in certain circumstances. Aid workers now cooperate with the military in conflict and post-conflict zones through practical necessity. Britain's Department for International Development links the provision of humanitarian assistance to objectives such as restoring peace and human rights. The US government has, even more overtly, called on NGOs to help US foreign policy goals; in Iraq, humanitarian aid has been politicised on an unprecedented scale and its impartiality undermined.
I was working in Kosovo September 11 and colleagues in the UN High Commission for Refugees left for Afghanistan a few days later, in anticipation of the human catastrophe to come. Sheltered by the UN flag, our independence was respected and it was not really until just over a year ago that the Taliban began to target us. This coincided with the invasion of Iraq.
The humanitarian crises the 1990s led to a vast expansion of NGO activities as they increasingly acted as semiofficial distributors of relief. In many countries, including Afghanistan, NGOs have assumed responsibility for state-type functions such as the provision of public services, health and education. Long-term development assistance has continued to decline over the past 15 years and, while governments are delivering an increasing amount of their humanitarian relief through NGOs, these are increasingly reliant on government funding.
Many NGOs withdrew from Afghanistan when the Taliban were in power, in protest at their lack of respect for human rights and anti-women policies. Others stayed, arguing that to pull out would only increase the suffering of ordinary people. The Taliban themselves adopted an ambivalent attitude towards the humanitarian organisations, tacitly relying on them to make good their own complete lack of attention to social welfare. It is only since the fall of their regime that the Taliban leaders have adopted a "with us or against us" attitude towards the aid community.
The problem for many aid workers is that the US seems to take a similar stance. NGOs have repeatedly complained about the mixing of military and humanitarian mandates, and the trend towards military involvement in humanitarian relief efforts - which attracted so much attention during the Kosovo operation - has reached new levels in Afghanistan. Military-led provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) now carry out many humanitarian activities that used to be the preserve of NGOs.
Médecins Sans Frontières, which has strenuously criticised the deployment of PRTs, recently accused US forces of distributing leaflets assistance from areas where resistance is concentrated. Others have accused the US - which regularly deploys its military personnel in civilian clothes, with weapons concealed - of using humanitarian actions as a front for intelligence-gathering.
The view that aid workers should be expected to take sides in a supposed global war between the west and Osama bin Laden is a clear violation of the Geneva conventions and the fundamental principles of international law. It has taken over a century and a half to construct these principles. It would be ironic if their destruction should prove to be one of the more enduring legacies of the British government's "ethical foreign policy".
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