World's Aid Groups Find Neutrality Badges Tarnished

Article excerpt

The humanitarian aid group Oxfam went out on a moral limb recently when it put up a home page on the Internet to take a stand for the protection of Bosnia's Muslims against Serb attacks.

The opinion itself was less striking than that the group delivered it: Humanitarian groups like Oxfam usually cherish political neutrality as a badge of their credibility in gaining access to the world's trouble spots.

But in the complex post-cold-war world, not taking sides can be a dangerous proposition for relief workers on the ground. War and banditry have become inextricably linked, as was the case in Somalia and Haiti. Front lines no longer exist and more often than not, the traditional line between combatants and noncombatants have become clouded.

Now, some humanitarian groups are starting to take a stand to preserve their tradition of neutrality.

"The term humanitarian action has come to have wide meaning," says Cornelio Sommaruga, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). "There is increasing uncertainty and confusion about {our} roles and responsibilities in the international community. Some clarity is needed."

Code of conduct?

And so for the first time in its 132-year history, the Swiss-based group is asking that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) subscribe to a code of conduct.

"Doctors have universal standards. Engineers have universal standards," says Peter Walker, head of disaster and refugees for the Federation of the Red Cross. "But humanitarian workers don't have professional standards."

The proposed code mandates that aid be given regardless of race, creed, or nationality. It requires that aid not be used to further a political or religious viewpoint, or as an instrument of government foreign policy.

And while many NGOs support the proposed code, it is clear that the ICRC will never convince everyone. London-based Amnesty International, for example, has built its reputation on openly criticizing governments it finds violating human rights.

Some NGOs seek publicity to prove a point. Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) reportedly launched a publicity campaign in the former Yugoslavia equating Serbian President Slobadan Milosevic with Hitler. "There were more than 300 various humanitarian organizations involved in this conflict," says Nenad Javornik of the Croatian Red Cross. "But what we saw was that not all of them acted without prejudice. …