In its series of discussions on how the core humanitarian principles relate to some of the practical issues raised in the World Humanitarian Summit consultation process, on 1 October 2015, PHAP hosted session on the principle of neutrality. In conflict settings there is perhaps no more certain way for humanitarians to lose access than the perception of their having chosen sides. Paradoxically, neutrality is the principle most often challenged by humanitarians themselves, viewed as prohibiting public advocacy or as interfering with organizational values such as solidarity. Many organizations have developed specific definitions or interpretations of neutrality that diverge from that of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Neutrality functions as a key, gaining the trust of armed groups to "unlock" access to zones under their control. By establishing its neutrality, humanitarian aid – especially aid delivered to an "enemy" – demands that it be judged neither a hostile act, nor a contribution to the war efforts of the belligerent parties. The establishment of neutrality can be particularly challenging for national NGOs, who face different expectations and pressures than the international community.

In past decades, the underlying basis for neutrality has come under sustained attack by the political and military instrumentalization of the "with us or against us" discourse. This can be seen as all the more reason to adhere, to instill confidence in combatants and gain access to all communities caught up in the crisis, regardless their geographic location or political, religious, or ethnic affiliation. Yet adherence proves difficult in many contexts, especially where access to the "enemy" is blocked, or where key donor governments also play a role in the conflict. How do different organizations interpret neutrality? How do they define their duties in this regard? What measures do they put in place to demonstrate and safeguard neutrality? This session will invite a diverse set of panelists to explore these questions, with an eye to better understanding the intricacies of how neutrality works in contemporary humanitarian action.

The event began with an expert presentation on the topic by Kate Mackintosh, Deputy Registrar at ICTY. This was followed by a moderated discussion among a panel of experts which will also include Banu Altunbas, Director of International NGO Safety Organisation in the DRC; Marc Cohen, Senior Researcher at Oxfam America; and Samir Elhawary, Deputy Head at OCHA ROMENA. The event provided the opportunity for participants to provide their perspectives on the topic discussed, through the live chat, through posing questions to the panelists, and through live polls.


Banu Altunbas Banu Altunbas is the Director of International NGO Safety Organisation in the Democractic Republic of the Congo. She has extensive experience in senior humanitarian positions in the Great Lakes region and the Balkans, including with MSF and Action Contre la Faim.
Marc Cohen Marc Cohen is Senior Researcher at Oxfam America, currently working on humanitarian policy and climate change, as well as evaluations of humanitarian advocacy and Oxfam International's Rights in Crisis campaign. His academic training is in political science and development studies and he's also a part time faculty member at John Hopkins University. Before coming to Oxfam Marc was a Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) 1998-2008, and his long term research focus is global food security. Marc has carried out field research in Ethiopia, Haiti, Taiwan, Thailand, Uganda, and the USA. Marc is the author or commissioning manager of six Oxfam International policy and research papers on Ethiopia, Haiti, and the Arms Trade Treaty and Co-editor of two books on global food price volatility.
Samir Elhawary Samir Elhawary is the Deputy Head at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa (ROMENA). Prior to joining OCHA ROMENA, Samir was a Research Fellow at the Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute, where his research focused on humanitarian space, stabilization and UN integration. Samir also has experience in promoting human rights in the extractive industry.
Kate Mackintosh Kate Mackintosh has around 20 years broad experience in international human rights and humanitarian policy, practice and law. From 2003 to 2011, Kate worked with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), first as the International Law Adviser then as Head of Humanitarian Affairs at the Operational Centre in Amsterdam. She was a member of the Board of MSF Hong Kong for six years. Her experience includes working in Sarajevo as Senior Legal Adviser to the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Rwanda as a Human Rights Field Officer with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and as a consultant to a wide range of organizations in the humanitarian sphere. Her publications have focused on the application of international law to the dilemmas of humanitarian action and the protection of civilians, as well as on the relationship between humanitarianism and criminal justice. She is currently the Deputy Registrar of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.


Marc DuBois Marc DuBois currently an independent humanitarian consultant/researcher/blogger, was the Executive Director of MSF-UK from March 2008 until March 2014. He joined MSF in 1999, landing as a project coordinator in Khartoum, Sudan, where he managed a basic healthcare program. Following Sudan, Marc went to Angola as a Humanitarian Affairs Officer and then moved to Amsterdam, spending over six years in the Humanitarian Affairs Department of MSF-Holland, first as an advisor and later as head of department and researcher. Marc has a degree in philosophy from Yale University (BA 1981), an MA in development studies from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague (1988) and a degree in law from Columbia University in New York (JD 1994).


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This World Humanitarian Summit consultation event is made possible with the support of the Federal Foreign Office of Germany