On being neutral: Reflections on neutrality in humanitarian action

PHAP member articles are written by members of the association in their personal capacity. The views expressed belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of PHAP or any other organizations with which the author is associated.
28 June 2014

The core humanitarian principles, commonly understood as the principles of neutrality, impartiality, independence, and humanity, all require reflection on how they translate in practice. A decade ago, Marion Harroff-Tavel pointed out in an article that “people are not born neutral, they choose to become so.”1 In this article, I will focus on the principle of neutrality and what it means, in the light of my own experience – not as a principle as adhered to by States, international organizations, or NGOs, but as something to be considered by individual humanitarian practitioners, as we carry out our daily work.

Humanitarian action today is essentially the result of collective action, by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), by Geneva Call, by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and many others. Yet, behind this collective action are the actions of humanitarian workers, of human beings with their cultural backgrounds, feelings and emotions, and ideas and convictions.

How are we, as humanitarian workers, to act in a neutral manner? How can we ensure that we are perceived to be neutral? Should we be neutral at all times? How do we deal with accusations of non-neutrality? How do we behave, when we are not certain of our own neutrality?



In 1987, fresh out of university, and not even looking for a job, I was invited to a recruitment interview with the ICRC (this was really a different era in terms of recruitment processes). In those days, the typical candidate was interviewed twice – once by a recruiter, once by “someone from operations.” Having successfully passed these first two interviews, I was invited to a third one, which had only one objective: to determine whether I was really neutral in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Since I could honestly say that I was, I could then be recruited. For my first assignment, I was sent to Iraq, and then, after some months there, went on to Gaza. This was my first serious exposure to this part of the world and its still ongoing conflict.

Some months prior to taking up my new assignment, an ICRC delegate in the region had been accused by Israel of supporting the Palestinian cause. Little was said about this at the time, but a few years later, I met that person, who had by then long since left the ICRC. When I asked her about this accusation, she categorically denied it. Whatever the truth of the matter, this episode had a strong impact on me and on my career: by all means was I to maintain strict neutrally, and to ensure that I was perceived to be neutral. This is the philosophy I tried to follow throughout my years as a humanitarian worker.

Have I succeeded? Yes and no. Events, people, and situations have influenced me and shaped me. For example, I no longer look at the Israel-Palestine conflict as I first did nearly thirty years ago. But, were I to be deployed there again today, for certain I would once again, completely honestly, answer that question in exactly the same way: yes, I am neutral. Would I be perceived to be neutral? By some, yes.

I initially spent about a year in Gaza, assigned to carry out prison visits. My main activity was to verify the treatment of Palestinians and prisoners of other nationalities who were under interrogation. As I left this assignment, the Israeli army major who was my daily point of contact throughout my assignment thanked me for doing my job. I did not note down his words at the time, but they included the concept, or maybe even the word, of neutrality. I had succeeded in that part of my mission, at least.


Understanding neutrality

Let us start with a dictionary definition of neutrality. The New Oxford American Dictionary has this to say:

neutrality |njuːˈtralɪti|
noun [ mass noun ]
1 the state of not supporting or helping either side in a conflict, disagreement, etc.; impartiality: during the war, Switzerland maintained its neutrality.
2 absence of decided views, expression, or strong feeling: the clinical neutrality of the description.
3 the condition of being chemically or electrically neutral: the structure has overall electrical neutrality.

Neutrality as a humanitarian principle is essentially in line with the first definition, the state of not supporting any side in a conflict.2 It is described as a “state,” not an attitude or a decision, which gives the impression of permanence. It is less obvious, from this definition, what would be the reach of the terms “supporting or helping,” although the reference to a disagreement would presumably mean that “neutrality” goes beyond material support and includes moral support. Yet, it is precisely this moral “support” that is of most interest, because it is here – in the ideological domain – that we face the greatest risk.

In an article by Denise Plattner on the ICRC’s view of neutrality, it is pointed out that in terms of international relations, neutrality is distinct from non-belligerence by virtue of status: neutrality is a permanent principle whereas non-belligerency is a specific decision, on a case-by-case basis, not to take part in hostilities.3 The article goes on to observe that neutrality, as a principle of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, is formulated as follows: "In order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Movement may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature." The article also posits that neutrality determines the nature of impartiality: “It is indeed vital for the ICRC to adopt an even-handed attitude towards the belligerents if it is to continue to be regarded – perceived – as neutral by those belligerents.”

In this article, I would, however, also like to examine the second definition in the dictionary entry above: the “absence of decided views, expression, or strong feeling.” In practice, this is more applicable to how individual humanitarian workers have to relate to the principle of neutrality.


Observations from the field

Before dealing with the issue at a more general level, I would like to share some concrete examples from my professional experience, where the circumstances made either others or myself question my neutrality as a humanitarian worker:

  • In an armed conflict pitting a government against an Islamist rebellion, I was tasked with verifying the treatment afforded to persons captured by government forces. In one case, I was warned about a particularly dangerous prisoner, kept in isolation. I was told that I could only see him if he wore handcuffs. I refused this condition, but prior to entering his cell, I spoke to him, without guards present, through the door. He informed me in no uncertain terms that he refused my presence: “If I were to meet you outside, in the street, I would kill you.” In another prison, I was told by another prisoner: “The prison director could make me eat dog meat, but I wouldn’t tell you about it, because you are the enemy. With your red cross, you represent France, colonialism, Christianity, the World Bank, and the IMF. The prison director is also my enemy, but he is Muslim. Christians have been fighting Muslims for 1600 years.” Could I pretend to be neutral in the face of such overwhelming hostility towards me and what I represented? Did my neutrality mean anything under these circumstances?
  • In another context, we were faced with systematic violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) by one party, against the citizens of another party: murder, rape, deportation, and starvation – all on a massive scale. In addition, the party committing these atrocities was generally held to be the aggressor. I suspect that most of us humanitarian workers felt a cultural kinship with the aggrieved party. Yet, humanitarian action means observing strict neutrality, because in this case, bringing aid and protection to the victims meant negotiating with those responsible for those very crimes. How can we reconcile the horror we feel at the behaviour of one or both of the parties while maintaining neutrality?
  • In Iraq, I was put in charge of the team that visited US and UK "detention facilities." As a dual Swiss and British citizen, I found myself in a quandary. In my own conscience, I was clearly neutral, in the sense that I did not "favour" the UK over the Iraqis. However, in terms of the armed conflict, I had opposed this war from the beginning. I went so far as to inform my main counterpart, a U.S. army major, about my political stance, so as to avoid any misunderstanding. I would not allow this "anti-war" stance to become "anti-US" or "anti-UK", nor would I allow it to influence my activity as detention team-leader. How did that clear positioning sit with my neutrality?
  • Due to a misunderstanding within my team, I allowed myself to be interviewed on the situation in Iraq by a leading American newspaper4 – contrary to instructions from headquarters. Although I had not committed any “mistake,” my employer felt it urgent to redeploy me to another context, on the basis that I had said things that could have put in jeopardy the U.S. military’s perceptions of the ICRC’s neutrality. Should I have refused to express my point of view?
  • While at Geneva Call, I was peripherally involved in engaging the Kurdistan’s Workers’ Party (PKK). This armed group, listed as a terrorist organization by several states, took on a signed commitment to ban anti-personnel mines. As a direct result of the signing ceremony, Turkey accused Geneva Call of supporting terror. Should we refrain from trying to influence positively the behaviour of so-called terrorist organizations, for fear of losing our neutrality? Are we really supporting or tolerating terrorism by directly engaging with such organizations?

What are my intimate convictions on these armed conflicts? Am I really neutral? These are dramatic situations that I have been directly involved in, so the option to say "I don't care" is simply non-existent. I do care.

In the case of the Islamist insurgency, I really did not take sides, even on a personal level. Both the government and the insurgents had valid as well as invalid causes, both conducted unacceptable actions. I do not think I needed, or felt able, to wish that one side or the other win or lose.

For the Iraq conflict, I simply felt that the whole thing was a disaster. Again, it was not a case of wanting Saddam Hussein's forces, or the Coalition forces, to win or to lose. Yes, I support democracy, and my previous experience in Iraq meant that I was very much aware of the terrible nature of the dictatorship in the country. But no, I did not rejoice in the demise of this regime because my own country was involved in attacking Iraq (on what I consider false pretences). Yet, was I right or was I wrong to express my anti-war sentiment, to the very representative of the party chiefly responsible for starting the war? Was I right to express my personal opinion, in the framework of an ICRC action? Was it contextually correct, in the sense that I could allow myself such expression, given the culture and identity of my interlocutors? After all, would I have been able to express similar anti-war feelings to some rebel movement, such as the Tuareg rebels in Mali? I’m not only thinking here about their reaction to my sentiment, but my own perceptions and capacity.

The PKK case is slightly different. Again, I am against the very fact of there being an armed conflict, and I am not convinced that the PKK took the right path in its attempt to defend the rights of the Kurdish people by taking up arms, and condoning or committing armed acts against non-combatants, which could be construed as “terrorism.” Do I support the Kurdish people's right to self-determination? Yes I do. Will I ever undertake any action that will support that cause? While I would answer “no” to this question, I was part of Geneva Call's team deciding to engage the PKK, which I saw as a neutral, humanitarian action, but which Turkey saw as supporting terrorism and the PKK.

Challenges to assuming a neutral stance

While ICRC delegates have their own personal political views, which no doubt cover a broad spectrum of opinion, as representatives of a neutral organization they cannot express those views.5
We’ve taken a 4x4 (vehicle) that belongs to the enemies of Islam, along with their accomplices,” the head of the movement, Yoro Abdoulsalam, told the AFP news organization in Bamako. When asked whether he was talking about the ICRC workers, he replied, “yes”.6

We face two major challenges in assuming a neutral stance. The first relates to how we approach conflicts – how we maintain, develop, and express our neutrality vis-à-vis the situation we are dealing with.

The second is the awareness of our own image and how this impacts the perception of our neutrality by the parties to the conflict. We carry with us our identity, and we are very often categorized, whether we ourselves agree with that categorization or not. Can a person with black skin work in context X? Can a US citizen work in context Y? Can a Jew work in context Z? What about men wearing turbans, women wearing veils, and so on? The example mentioned above, where I found myself challenged on the basis of a categorization by a prisoner that was partly true and partly wrong, shook me to the core, and to this day, I am not sure what upset me the most, the rejection on the basis of what was true, or the total impossibility to dialogue on the basis of what was untrue.

These two challenges are indeed not so different from each other. There are elements over which we have a modicum of control, and there are aspects that are mostly beyond our control. The answers to these two challenges cannot really be separated from each other, because in each case, if there are answers, they lie within us.

When I was with the ICRC, it was common to hear that colleagues were not neutral, that they were “on the side of the victims.” This still leaves a number of questions unanswered. Are we unwitting agents of a certain ideology or viewpoint, or seen as such? Are our actions coloured by our thoughts? In which circumstances are we allowed to express our opinions, if any? Can one remain neutral in the face of abuse? Are there circumstances when, due to our origins (real or perceived), or to our opinions, we may not serve a humanitarian cause? Finally, I will consider how we can react, when our neutrality is put in doubt.


Approaching neutrality as an individual

The starting point for a humanitarian worker will be to understand and accept his or her organization’s stance on neutrality. Some colleagues have stayed a very short time with the ICRC, simply because they were utterly uncomfortable with this overriding neutrality.

Once we have understood and accepted the organizational values under which we conduct ourselves, we must rigorously work on our attitude. One element is to maintain impartiality at all times, aiding all victims of the conflict according to their needs. Yet impartiality is not enough, because we are usually placed in a situation of serving the victims only on one side of the front line – we risk losing sight of the victims of the “other” side. The temptation is great to start to identify with “our” victims, and transforming that identification to some sort of support. Impartiality is not a guarantee of neutrality.

There are two answers to this potential slippage to support of one side of a conflict. The first is to be vigilant, and to try to maintain neutrality through an open mind, discussion, and exchange. If that fails, the second option is to accept that we have certain opinions, but to ensure that we do not express them. Not that we should completely hide our feelings, we are not robots and our image would not benefit from being seen as such. But our expressions of sympathy or support should be limited to the victims.

Just as humanitarian action does not concern itself with the “rights and wrongs” in any armed conflict, so should we humanitarians concentrate our attention fully on the humanitarian effects of the conflict. I am certain that most humanitarians become more pacifist as their experience of the effects of armed conflict grows. Consequently, we tend to combine two conflicting standpoints: on the one hand, ignoring the causes of the conflict, so as to be able to succour the victims, while on the other profoundly detesting the situation that victimizes the people we are there to help.

Humanitarian workers also have to deal with the effects that the actual behaviour of the parties will have on us. It is often easy to stay neutral while sitting in the office, or when the parties to a conflict carry out their dirty deeds when no-one is looking, but there are times when extreme behaviour is shoved right into our faces.

1993 takes us back to the Bosnian conflict. I do not want to lump together the behaviour of each of the three parties – but as I do not want to name them, I will keep the example at a general level. As Protection Coordinator, I was confronted with situations which I was not prepared for, where I had to make choices about which would be the lesser of two evils – evacuate people and participate in ethnic cleansing, or leave them in situ and potentially watch them be murdered? It was the first time that I was confronted with parties who preferred to commit dirty deeds in front of the cameras, the aid organizations, and the UN. The uglier, the better, seemed to go the thinking. I had previously worked in areas where ethnic cleansing had occurred, but this had hitherto (in my experience) taken place far from the eyes of the world. How can we justify our neutrality in situations such as these, when we see one or more parties implement policies which are contrary to everything we stand for? However, this is not the way the question should be asked. If we allow the behaviour of belligerents to weaken our neutrality, we expose ourselves to inaction.

If we are able, despite the challenges, to stay neutral or to hide our eventual sympathies, there remains the question of how we are perceived, either because of our “luggage,” or because of the actions we undertake. My own answer to this is humility and steadfastness. We must accept that we cannot be effective in all situations. In the case of the Islamist detainees referred to above, I informed them that I respected their decision not to talk to us, while requesting that they understand the fact that we would remain available in case they changed their minds. In the case of Turkey and the PKK, I strongly support Geneva Call’s engagement of armed non-State actors, even those accused of terrorism. Asking armed actors to behave in a way compatible with humanitarian norms cannot, and should never, be equated with support, either for the cause of these actors, or their methods. We cannot accept the diktat of those who threaten us. But the reality of the situation, and its impact on the safety of humanitarian workers, means that there will be circumstances where we are unable to fulfil our humanitarian duty.

Fellow humanitarians who have worked in situations where totalitarian thinking is present will surely have come across similar reactions from parts of those they were sent to assist and protect.7 Our neutrality is simply not perceived: we are on the side of the imperialists, we are working on the basis of Western colonialist, neo-colonialist, capitalist, or Christian/ Jewish/ atheist ideals and concepts. Even colleagues who share the same religion, culture, and nationality of those they are tasked to assist and protect potentially face rejection and even death in their work.

If those who are party to a conflict will make assumptions about us, we should avoid making the same mistake. Remember the Islamist leader who was telling me that the prison director could make him eat dog flesh, still he would not tell me about it? As my little team trooped out of the prison, one of the other detainees, discreetly, winked at me.


Concluding remarks

I have considered, in this paper, how we should deal with our own attitude to neutrality, and how we can deal with the question of perceived neutrality. We each carry our cultural, ethnic, political, and emotional luggage. To some extent, we can work on our image, we can work on our attitude, and we can work on the perceptions we generate. Yet, in times of armed conflict, where human relationships are exacerbated, where demonizing the enemy is part and parcel of the struggle, there are clearly limits to what we can achieve. When we reach these limits, attempting to maintain our neutrality cannot bring a solution, but they can go some way towards ensuring we can go on with our work. My recommendations maintaining neutrality on a personal level can be summed up with the following advice: keep a low profile, develop your network, show empathy, be professional, and never take anyone for granted.

There are some questions which I have to leave open. Should a UK citizen be able to work in a context where the UK is militarily involved, such as when I was engaged in the protection of detainees in a British facility near Basrah? It will depend on the circumstances, it will depend on how one “relates to” the conflict itself and to one’s country of origin – but essentially, I think it is possible. Should we humanitarians be able to publicly express our opinions regarding conflicts? Probably not, but again, there are circumstances in which it might be permissible. For such questions, I leave it to the good judgement of each one of us, in light of the guidelines or rules adopted by our respective organizations.


About the author

Martin Damary is currently a consultant with extensive experience with the ICRC and was the former Managing Director of Geneva Call from 2005 to 2010.



1 Marion Harroff-Tavel (December 2003), “Does it still make sense to be neutral?,” Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, Issue 25.
2 Interestingly, the definition adds the term “impartiality”, either as a synonym, or as a complement to the definition of neutrality. Many confuse neutrality with impartiality. Whereas neutrality is an attitude vis-à-vis the sides of a conflict, impar-tiality relates much more to the way we bring aid and protection to those in need. Being impartial means that we do not discriminate in any way between victims, or, put in the simplest of terms, that we help all according to their needs only, in the light of our own limited resources. It is possible, for example, for a military surgeon to not be neutral - because he is party to the conflict, because he is committed to victory by his own side, by the cause he believes in - while being totally impartial by treating injured prisoners of war just as well as soldiers from his own army. The principle of impartiality is strongly linked to that of humanity, in other words, to recognize our shared humanity as a fundamental principle transcending any differences we may have with those around us.
3 Denise Plattner (30 April 1996), “ICRC neutrality and neutrality in humanitarian assistance”, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 311.
4 The Wall Street Journal /21 May 2004), “Finding U.S. Abuse in Iraq Left Red Cross Team in a Quandary.”
5 Marion Harroff-Tavel (December 2003), “Does it still make sense to be neutral?,” Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, Issue 25.
6 Swissinfo.ch (11 February 2014), “Jihadist group says it kidnapped ICRC team.”
7 This is not to say that attempts to counteract the neutral position of humanitarian actors is the preserve of totalitarian actors.