Global Policy Forum

In the Line of Fire


By John S. Burnett*

New York Times
August 4, 2004

At some point, the killing has to stop or effective humanitarian relief work as we know it today will never be the same. Relief workers are being murdered at an alarming rate because of a perceived lack of neutrality, because they are regarded as extensions of a donor nation's political and military agendas.

On the eve of the anniversary of the bombing of the United Nations compound in Baghdad, which killed 22 relief workers, it is disturbing to note that civilian humanitarian workers as never before have become fair game because their fiercely held neutrality - long enshrined in international law - is no longer taken seriously. Since then, nine aid workers of the United States Agency for International Development have been killed in the Darfur region of Sudan. Returning Taliban assassinated five relief workers of the unquestionably neutral Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan in June. A Taliban spokesman said they were killed because they were considered spies for the United States.

Here in Amsterdam, headquarters of Doctors Without Borders/Holland, the murders of its staff members in Afghanistan were a shock. Few agencies hold their neutrality more inviolate. The killings, and the Afghan government's failure to arrest the perpetrators, were too much. Kenny Gluck, operations director of Doctors Without Borders, announced last week that the organization was pulling out of Afghanistan after 24 years of service, after saving countless lives during what had been considered the worst of times - during Soviet oppression and Taliban restrictions. Mr. Gluck said he made his decision in part because of the United States military's use of humanitarian aid for "political and military motives." American officials have rejected the charge that mixing military and relief activity would endanger aid workers.

Before the killing of his colleagues, Mr. Gluck, an American, had expressed concern that the neutrality of all relief workers employed by nongovernmental organizations in the post- Sept. 11 world was being compromised: "The Americans are pretending that NGO's are with them fighting the war against terror, and they are not. That puts them in danger. We want to be relevant medically and irrelevant militarily and politically." He himself was held hostage for more than three weeks in a moldy root cellar in Chechnya because, in part, his kidnappers questioned his group's impartiality.

Neutrality has never been far from the surface in relief work. When I was worked for the United Nations World Food Program in Somalia, we distributed 50-kilogram sacks of grain emblazoned with the American flag and "Gift of the People of the United States of America.'' Somalis readily accepted the aid but it was clear that our professed neutrality was suspect. James Morris, director of the World Food Program, explained, "It is important to see who cares about them, to know the genuine goodness of the United States." But at what point does the American gift to the needy in a war zone become a political weapon in the battle of influence, in the war of winning hearts and minds? Mr. Morris told me that President Bush has told him that the United States "will never use food as a political weapon." Other friends of the president seem to differ - to the horror of relief workers who increasingly are targets of those who think otherwise.

The demand on relief agencies to shed that protective cloak of neutrality - despite the dangers to those in the field - has never been more aggressive than it is today. Secretary of State Colin Powell, addressing nongovernmental organizations in 2001, spelled out a revised policy on relief work: that "just as surely as our diplomats and military, American NGO's s are out there serving and sacrificing on the front lines of freedom NGO's are such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team." Those remarks sent shock waves through the relief community, which would rather not be part of the combat team in the war on terrorism.

More recently, Secretary Powell's words were supported in a speech by Andrew S. Natsios, administrator of Usaid, the world's most generous food aid donor. At the Interaction Forum last year, he told relief groups that if they received American financing, they were "an arm of the U.S. government.''If aid organizations did not show a stronger link to American foreign policy he threatened, according to the forum, to tear up their contracts and find new partners.

Relief agencies today are desperately scratching for donations and workers to deal with the disasters unfolding in Darfur and in Bangladesh. Unless the United States, the key donor nation, publicly espouses the position that relief work is neutral, and unless the Bush administration makes it clear that those saving lives in the field do not follow a donor nation's political and military policies, other sources of donations might dry up. Nations that frequently augment American contributions may understandably be reluctant to donate the billions of dollars and personnel needed for humanitarian efforts. And more civilian relief workers are going to get killed in their service to humanity.

About the Author: John S. Burnett is the author of the forthcoming"Where Soldiers Fear to Tread.''

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