Analysis & Opinions - Christian Science Monitor

Humanitarian Aid Is Not a Military Business

| Apr. 15, 2003

The installation of a retired general to head postwar operations in Iraq demonstrates the Pentagon's ability to wrest control of humanitarian reconstruction from the United Nations and the Department of State.

But this power ought to rest with a civilian organization—such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs—that practically and ethically will better serve the reconstruction effort.

The Pentagon should sacrifice the short-term benefit of control for the long-term prize of legitimacy.

Under a military-controlled relief effort, humanitarian assistance can easily become a tool of war. Hostile forces might see aid workers as easy targets and allies of the occupying force. Moreover, the neediest Iraqis may never receive assistance if their needs don't match the Pentagon's political goals. The reconstruction effort is likely to lack international legitimacy and financial support.

In Iraq, the US use of humanitarian aid as a political asset threatens the efficiency and equity of aid operations. The Pentagon, overruling the Department of State, has asserted the right to organize postwar reconstruction in Iraq. It created an Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance that will have the military imprimatur on every aspect of rebuilding—from political institutions to the food aid Iraqis receive.

Aid workers from international charities can follow along the Pentagon script or they can operate at their own considerable risk. The Pentagon has even made plans for these aid workers to wear US military-issued identification badges—something the workers see as an affront to their values as well as an unnecessary risk in a still volatile region.

The Pentagon plan poses monumental ethical and practical challenges to aid groups. The two bedrock principles of humanitarian assistance are neutrality and impartiality.

Neutrality means that organizations do not take sides in a conflict. Impartiality means that need is the only condition for determining who receives aid—not political affiliation, ethnicity, or any other criterion.

Aid organizations obviously lose their neutrality if they operate under the direction of the US military. Humanitarian aid also loses its impartiality if politics, rather than need, determines who receives aid. On the ground, that might translate to the military preventing aid workers from assisting non-liberated zones, for example.

Adherence to impartiality and neutrality, even in an imperfect way, is a practical asset to aid workers, in addition to the ethical value. Being viewed as US allies makes them easy targets for Iraqi guerrillas. "We don't want our workers compromised by having military protection," said an official of Save the Children (UK) earlier this month, as debate in the international aid community formed around the Pentagon's emerging plan.

Many organizations, such as Oxfam, have already stated their refusal to work under the US military. Some aid organizations, however, will do so. These groups may reap valuable contracts and international visibility for their organizations. By doing so they will relinquish any pretense of neutrality and impartiality, however.

Currently the Department of Defense is winning the debate about humanitarian reconstruction, mainly because it controls access and resources. But humanitarian organizations like Doctors Without Borders—winners of the Nobel Peace Prize—have moral clout and international legitimacy. They also have technical expertise and a reputation for impartiality. It will prove foolish and costly for the Pentagon to ignore the viewpoints of these humanitarian organizations.

The Afghanistan conflict in 2001 showcased military incompetence in humanitarian aid distribution. In a crude bid for political influence, the US dropped individual food packets from airplanes in remote areas of Afghanistan. The only value of these token distributions was for US propaganda. Even the propaganda backfired after Afghan civilians mistook yellow unexploded ordnance for the yellow food packets. In other instances, the media reported on warlords hoarding the food packets and selling them for a profit.

Similar stories of military mismanagement and inexperience are already emerging from Iraq. In Umm Qasr, children daily contract preventable diseases from dirty water. Rather than focus on unglamorous tasks of health and sanitation, however, US troops built a very photogenic plastic playground for the children of Umm Qasr. News photos of US soldiers sharing their rations with grateful Iraqi families cannot replace the need for technical expertise to feed millions of malnourished civilians.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Lischer, Sarah Kenyon.“Humanitarian Aid Is Not a Military Business.” Christian Science Monitor, April 15, 2003.

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