Neutrality, Impartiality, and the Syrian Crisis

People sometimes find it hard to grasp the difference between the concepts of impartiality and neutrality, as used in a humanitarian context. The current crisis in Syria shows the importance of distinguishing between the two.

The principle of impartiality, as articulated by the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, is about relieving the suffering of individuals based solely on need, and without discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class, or political opinions. After the principle of humanity it is the most fundamental aspect of the very concept of humanitarianism.

Neutrality, on the other hand, is about not taking sides in a conflict or engaging in controversies of a political, racial, religious, or ideological nature. For the Red Cross/Red Crescent it is an important means to the end of being able to deliver impartial humanitarian assistance; of being able to access those in need of assistance on both sides of any conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) describes this aspect of its role as being to provide “neutral, independent (another core principle) humanitarian assistance”.

Theoretically, at least, one can abandon strict neutrality but remain impartial: I can abhor your politics and blame you for starting a war, but still provide medical relief to your wounded as well as to those of your enemy. In practice speaking out in this way may make it much less likely you will allow me to provide impartial humanitarian assistance; it is how I am perceived by the parties to a conflict that matters, not only my intent. This is a dilemma faced by organisations such as international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), who feel the need to speak out on the basis of concerns about human rights but who also want to be able to provide help on the ground rather than just to shout from the sidelines.

How is this relevant to Syria? As the crisis deepens and the number of people suffering increases, the humanitarian imperative becomes more pressing. To existing concerns about systematic abuses of human rights has been added the fear of a major humanitarian catastrophe; food and medical supplies have been disrupted and the wounded are without help. However, Western governments such as the US, UK and France, have from the outset of the crisis felt obliged to abandon their neutrality and have taken positions highly critical of the Syrian regime. A consequence of this is that their ability to broker “humanitarian access”, i.e. to help the ICRC and other aid agencies to reach those in need of assistance, is reduced if not eliminated. Thus the calls from the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunis for “humanitarian corridors” is likely to fall on deaf ears in Damascus, given that these are accompanied by “strong condemnation” of the Assad regime and an expressed determination to step up sanctions on that regime. Thankfully the ICRC – working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent – because it has remained neutral, is able to negotiate its own access and to carry out its task of evacuating the wounded and providing material assistance to the civilian population in an impartial way.

The lesson of this is that sometimes one has to remain neutral in order to be seen to be impartial. However, even a determined attempt at neutrality may fail. A good example is the work of the independent commission of enquiry established by the UN to investigate abuses of human rights in Syria since March 2011. Its second report, released on 22 February 2012, is a model of restrained, objective, evidence-based, analysis. It acknowledges that crimes have been committed both by Government and by opposition forces, although it makes clear its view, based on the evidence, that the latter are “not comparable in scale and organisation to those carried out by the State”. The report does not advocate, as have many at the UN, some form of forcible external intervention. On the contrary, it “recommends the initiation of an inclusive political dialogue, bringing together the government, the opposition, and other anti-government actors to negotiate an end to the violence, to ensure respect for human rights and to address the legitimate demands of the Syrian people. It is about as sensible an analysis of and prescription for the Syrian crisis as one could hope to read.

And yet, predictably, when it was published its neutrality was sidelined as people interpreted it in line with their own political perspective. Thus, in the Western media it was reported under headlines such as “Syrian troops have killed more than 250 children, UN report finds” (The Guardian); “UN report says Syria committing war crimes” (Al Jazeera); “UN panel accuses Syrian government of crimes against humanity” (New York Times); “UN accuses Syria of gross systematic human rights violations” (BBC). These were not inaccurate, but hardly gave a rounded sense of what the report’s authors were trying to convey. For its part the Syrian government, in an earlier letter to the commission published as an annex to the report, stated “You have grossly exceeded your mandate by holding the Syrian government fully accountable for what has been going on in Syria, while you have given a blind eye to the violations of human rights committed by the terrorist groups … The commission immersed itself in the campaign against Syria in a clear violation of its mandate and the resolution establishing it.” Thus the considered and highly important recommendations of the commission have been lost in a war of words.

I said at the start of this piece that Syria showed the importance of distinguishing between impartiality and neutrality. The fact of the matter is, you cannot have it both ways: in a highly contested situation such as prevails in Syria if your primary concern is to relieve human suffering you will almost certainly have to restrain yourself politically and remain neutral, whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of the situation. If, on the other hand, you speak out against abuses of human rights you will probably have to accept you will no longer be seen as neutral, which may have consequences for your ability to intervene usefully. All “Friends of Syria” need to understand this if they are to make a meaningful contribution to ending the appalling human suffering in that country.