For decades aid agencies have been tackling troubling ethical dilemmas about where to draw the line when negotiating with armed forces when trying to deliver aid to vulnerable communities. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) discusses some of the ethical dilemmas it has faced over the past 40 years in Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience, promoted at its annual Berlin Humanitarian Congress.
“Humanitarian actors often claim they are above politics but it is simply not true,” said Fabrice Weissman, one of the co-authors of the book, which will be officially launched at the end of November.
“We do still retain our central tenet, which is saving lives,” Weissman added, but we also “seek to puncture a number of myths. We address the big question of when should and shouldn’t MSF be willing to compromise?”
Contributors lay out a wide range of dilemmas, “seeking to analyze the political transactions and balances of power and interests that allow aid activities to move forward, but that are usually masked by the lofty rhetoric of 'humanitarian principles'”.
The conclusions are often disturbing. “That fighting forces seek to take advantage of aid groups is unavoidable,” Weissman said. “The fact is that unless we provide them with benefits they have no reason to allow us to operate in the areas they seek to control.”
As an example, he mentioned Taliban-held areas of Afghanistan. “The reality there is that the Taliban are claiming responsibility for the goods and services that humanitarian groups are providing, which allows the Taliban to appear to the local populations as being effective governors.”
Another benefit fighting forces get from aid groups is money, exchanged for services such as security. “On many occasions, MSF, like other organizations, uses combatants to ensure the safety of its teams and convoys,” said the author.
Bribes are also part of negotiations, says Rony Brauman, who heads the MSF think-tank Centre de Réflexion Sur l’Action et Les Savoirs Humanitaires, which encourages debate and critical reflection on humanitarian practices. “The question is often not whether to pay them but how much to pay. It must be thought of as an informal tax.”
Also, much of the salary paid to local staff can end up in the coffers of fighting forces. Weismann cited Eritrea, which, during the conflict with Ethiopia in 1998, demanded a 50 percent tax on wages paid by NGOs.
Other fighting groups simply loot aid organizations, and some even have the gall to sell their spoils back to the aid group. “Corruption is an integral part of the worlds in which we operate,” Weissman said.
Some aid organizations have policies to avoid corruption. In 2010, Transparency International published Preventing Corruption in Humanitarian Operations, which lays out what aid organizations should do when faced with corruption dilemmas.
But for MSF, when the aim is to get the job done, corruption may be unavoidable. “Our imperative must always be to save lives but we have concluded that the means by which lives are saved cannot be a moral or ethical issue, and that is a fact that aid groups have tended not to talk about,” Weissman said.
When donors are combatants
The book is part of an MSF series associated with CRASH. A 2004 publication, In the Shadow of "Just Wars", focused on the problems MSF and other organizations had in conflict zones where Western troops were on one side of a conflict while Western donors were funding aid organizations that were supposed to be neutral.
That book includes examples from Iraq to Sierra Leone, where Western forces used humanitarian rhetoric to win the hearts and minds of local populations and often tried to use aid groups as part of these efforts.
The latest MSF publication goes further, discussing problems in places such as Gaza where Western donors try to stop aid groups from working with Hamas, which they consider a terrorist organization, but which is the sole authority that aid groups have to cooperate with if they are to provide services there.
US counter-terrorism laws stipulate that providing support resources to terrorists, even if not for terrorist purposes, could result in criminal prosecution. The impact of these laws on humanitarian action has been discussed in a just-released paper on Counter-terrorism and Humanitarian Action by the Humanitarian Policy Group.
“Combatants are also human beings”
Giving humanitarian assistance directly to armed groups is another topic tackled. “Combatants are also human beings and sometimes they need humanitarian assistance more than civilians,” Weissman said. “When combatants are wounded we no longer consider them combatants.”
Weissman says MSF does draw a line when armed forces use aid organizations to harm civilians. An example he cited is the Democratic Republic of Congo, after the genocide in Rwanda. Starting in 1996 and 1997, two years after Hutus in Rwanda crossed the border en masse, the Tutsi militia they were seeking refuge from used MSF’s data on their location – gathered to better facilitate humanitarian response – to hunt them down and attack them.
The solution was that MSF stopped publicizing the information but Weissman pointed to other examples of forces using aid groups against civilians that were more problematic.
In Sri Lanka in 2009, the government rounded up some 270,000 people it suspected of supporting Tamil rebels and then gave aid groups the job of providing the basic services. “We did not want to be supporting a vast prison for an innocent civilian population which the state was unjustly labelling criminals, but we were also concerned about what would happen to the civilians if we didn’t assist them.”
A lot has been written in recent years about the ways humanitarian agencies can inadvertently fuel injustice and conflict. The problem with the conclusion of many of these publications, said Weissman, is that they call on aid groups to “serve the cause of peace”. That often translated into NGOs cooperating more closely with UN peacekeeping and international donors, he said, which could undermine aid groups’ neutrality.
In the end, the criteria MSF uses to decide whether or not it should continue a particular operation is simple: “We ask ourselves who benefits most from our presence: the fighting forces or the civilians?”