May 1, 2004
As we seek to review the ongoing Iraq conflict from a humanitarian perspective, it is essential to remember that humanitarian action is not a political project. It has a limited, modest, yet vitally important ambition to ensure that the most vulnerable are not sacrificed in times of conflict and crisis. The tested principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence are designed to safeguard the ever-fragile access and security of humanitarian organizations in carrying out this endeavor in volatile, fragmented, and contested environments.
The well-being of the Iraqi population, which can be furthered through the establishment of a secure environment and the provision of basic services such as health, water, and sanitation, is first and foremost a matter of governance that is the legal and political responsibility of the power in charge. As the current governing authority, it is incumbent upon the United States to fulfill its obligations under the Geneva Conventions as an Occupying Power, and to deploy adequate means to meet this responsibility. In conflict and crisis, belligerents have the obligation to allow for unmediated, direct humanitarian assistance to victims, allocated based on need alone.140 In Iraq, the Saddam Hussein regime violated this obligation in many ways, as have the violent opponents of the U.S. occupation, most devastatingly by launching deliberate and targeted attacks on aid organizations and civilians. The United States and its allies, however, have also compromised humanitarian action.
When governments drape their military and political actions in the cloak of humanitarian concerns, they undermine humanitarian action's essential purpose: the unconditional provision of assistance to those in need. When all aid efforts are presented and perceived as being at the service of political and military objectives, it is more difficult and dangerous for independent humanitarian organizations to carry out their work.
While many aid organizations recognized the danger of being too closely associated with contested military and political action, they also refused to make the choice of either fully and openly working with the U.S. government or of decisively pushing back. This indecision fuelled the perception that all aid activities were simply extensions of the U.S. agenda.141
The reason all this matters is that, at particular junctures, humanitarian action could have made more of a difference in Iraq. Humanitarian organizations could have provided more support for Iraqi health professionals and others to assist the population affected by the ongoing conflict. The politicization of humanitarian aid has put the ability of humanitarian organizations to reach out to all victims, whoever and wherever they are, in jeopardy. As fighting continues in Iraq, and as conflicts continue to rage around the world, victims will need more, not less, principled humanitarian action that responds on the basis of needs alone.<
* Executive Director, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF-USA). MSF is a private independent medical humanitarian organization that delivers emergency aid in nearly eighty countries to victims of armed conflict, epidemics, and natural and man-made disasters. Thanks in particular to Pierre Salignon, Kevin Phelan, Kris Torgeson, J. C. Sylvan, and Mike Beneditkson for their valuable contributions. [back]
© 2013 Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)