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Humanitarian Inviolability in Crisis: The Meaning of Impartiality and Neutrality for U.N. And Ngo Agencies Following the 2003-2004 Afghanistan and Iraq Conflicts


Kenneth Anderson


American University - Washington College of Law; Stanford University - The Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace; Brookings Institution - Governance Studies


Harvard Human Rights Journal, Vol. 17, pp. 41-74, 2004

Abstract:     
Humanitarian inviolability - the ability of humanitarian agencies to be able to carry out their activities free from attack - depends upon the understanding that humanitarian agencies are neutral and impartial, but the very concept has been thrown into crisis, most spectacularly by the bombing attacks on the UN and International Committee of the Red Cross Baghdad headquarters in 2003. This article asks what the proper conceptual basis of humanitarian inviolability ought to be, and asserts that its traditional basis, neutrality, is insufficient morally to ground what humanitarian agencies do; it suggests that a better moral ground is rational incontestability of humanitarian aid at moments of extreme human need. At the same time, the article argues that most of the activities carried out by U.N. and NGO agencies in Iraq and Afghanistan are not neutral in this special humanitarian sense, but instead are nation building activities which are not neutral but which involve politically contestable choices; the tragedy of the attack upon the U.N. in Iraq was that it sought improperly to protect itself by appeal to humanitarian inviolability based upon rationally incontestable delivery of relief aid, when in fact it was engaged in nation building involving highly contestable political choices in the rebuilding of political and social institutions. Moreover, in order to situate itself as neutral as between Iraqi terrorist insurgents and the U.S., the U.N. sought to protect itself in effect by inviting attack upon U.S. occupation forces. The article criticizes U.N. comments after the attack upon the U.N. headquarter as improperly blaming the U.S., and instead invites the U.N. to reconsider the proper scope of neutrality and its relation to the U.N.'s necessarily politically value-laden role in nation-building. The article also criticizes the sense among NGO agencies that humanitarianism and humanitarian neutrality are the highest values and instead asserts that confronting moral evil, even with violence, is instead the highest value, and that neutral humanitarianism is always necessarily adjunct to that value.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 34

Keywords: Humanitarian aid, humanitarian relief, United Nations, non-governmental organizations, NGO, neutrality, International Committee of the Red Cross, Iraq, Afghanistan, nation building, occupation, Kofi Annan, Mark Malloch Brown, war, armed conflict, terrorism, Al Qaeda, Taleban, Taliban

JEL Classification: L30, L31

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Date posted: April 5, 2004  

Suggested Citation

Anderson, Kenneth, Humanitarian Inviolability in Crisis: The Meaning of Impartiality and Neutrality for U.N. And Ngo Agencies Following the 2003-2004 Afghanistan and Iraq Conflicts. Harvard Human Rights Journal, Vol. 17, pp. 41-74, 2004. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=524082

Contact Information

Kenneth Anderson (Contact Author)
American University - Washington College of Law ( email )
4801 Massachusetts Avenue N.W.
Washington, DC 20016
United States
Stanford University - The Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace
Stanford, CA 94305-6010
United States
Brookings Institution - Governance Studies
1775 Massachusetts Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20036
United States
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