During the cold war, relief and politics were seen as separate. Yet with an increasing recognition that relief alone is insufficient for the complex humanitarian emergencies, many humanitarian agencies have come to rethink the relationship between humanitarianism and politics. This shifting concept of humanitarian assistance is often called a new humanitarianism. It considers that humanitarian aid should be integrated into part of the long term processes of political issues in relation to the promotion of peace and justice.
New humanitarianism is political from the start, and its logical consequence, it rejects the traditional principle of neutrality. In classical humanitarianism, neutrality is one of the essential principles, together with humanity, impartiality, and independence. It considers that humanitarian agencies must seek the consent of warring parties to work in the context of violence in order to gain access to all victims in need of help. Neutrality requires that humanitarian agencies not become involved in, or engaged in any hostilities, abstaining from any political or military considerations.
The main priority of neutral agencies is the immediate relief of human suffering. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has kept its neutral position at war as the centre of its mission. For the ICRC, neutrality is described as, "in order to enjoy the confidence of all, the Movement may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious, or ideological nature". That is, the ICRC and other agencies who take such a position are in no position to make a judgment upon right or wrong sides, or just or unjust causes of war.
They believe that speaking out publicly about political or military issues will lead to the loss of access to all victims who might otherwise be left to their fate. 1 Hence they claim that neutrality is the best means to gaining access to all victims in need of help, and its logical consequence, confidentiality is also required to obtain the trust of warring parties. However, the principle of neutrality has raised controversies among relief community in terms of practice and ethics.
It has been widely argued that humanitarian aid can serve wars that cause human suffering it claims to alleviate in the first place. In practical terms, resources brought by agencies, such as vehicles and radio equipment, are often manipulated to serve military purposes. Food aid is frequently used to feed combatants and they use it to manipulate population movement. Furthermore, the presence of the western humanitarian agencies can give legitimacy of military operation to the eyes of the population involved.
In addition, aid can conceal the inaction of governments by both caring for the wounded that might go back to the battle and the costs involved. As these cases show, humanitarian assistance has been accused of prolonging or exacerbating wars. In this vein, it is impossible for humanitarian agencies to be neutral because their action, willingly or unwillingly, has an influence on the dynamics of the war. Thus as Anderson puts it, "aid provided in a context of conflict becomes an active part of that context" (1998:142). As for the ethical terms, the principle of neutrality can legitimize violence.
Neutrality requires that humanitarian agencies remain silent even in the face of gross violations of human rights. This would imply that, at a personal level, relief workers confront a moral dilemma. The characteristic of the contemporary internal wars are systematic and massive violations of human rights, which are intrinsically embedded in social, economic and political structures of societies. Relief workers began to recognize that humanitarian assistance alone without addressing the underlying causes of wars was an insufficient response to such a complex humanitarian emergency.
This disappointment and shame at powerlessness of humanitarian assistance, together with the awareness of the feasibility of being neutral in the context of violence, has called for a stable political solution. The new humanitarianism sees neutrality as "unprincipled" and politically "nai?? ve". 2 It claims that humanitarian aid should be linked up with human rights issues and used as a tool to accomplish the long-term political and developmental objectives leading to peace and justice.