Today, humanitarianism is an integral part of our world. Funding has rapidly increased and never before in the history of mankind has the number of actors and agencies involved been greater. The result is a heterogeneous and diverse humanitarian sector. This was not always the case.
Like the doctrine of state sovereignty was not established until 1648, so was the idea of the right of the wounded soldier to receive care indiscriminately of his nationality not conceptualised until 1864 – the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). To the present day, the ICRC considers itself as the guardian of the classical principles of humanitarianism: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality.
But this apparent nobility can come at a high price, as it makes no distinction between good wars and bad, between just and unjust causes, or even between aggressors and innocents. It is, however, of uttermost importance to reflect deeply upon what humanitarian action represents and at what point it loses its sense and becomes a technical function in the service of evil.
An apolitical humanitarianism is neither possible nor desirable. There is no such thing. Aid agencies work in an inherently political environment where even humanitarian spaces become politicised. Even if meant to be apolitical, their actions have political consequences and are perceived as such by the conflicting parties.
Aid is not neutral. It is a myth destroyed many times in the past by what has happened in the concentration camps in World War II, during the frantic killings in Rwanda, the safe heavens on the Balkan, and in the sands of Afghanistan and Iraq. Not only is it naïve of the humanitarianism community to deny its relationship to politics, it is also reckless. Aid works have to be conscious about the impact of their work, including the negative side effects, if they want to make responsible and informed choices.
The call for a return to an apolitical humanitarianism is misguided. It never existed in a pure form. In recent years, the politicisation of humanitarianism has been institutionalised and appears almost impossible to revers. Therefore, the debate should be focused on how to deal with the new realities.
Each conflict is distinctive. It takes individual approaches to deal with them accordingly. Humanitarianism should not be seen as a rigid, evangelical code of principles but a flexible tool to achieve what it does best: saving lives. Sometimes that might best be accomplished in a limited alliance with governments, while other situations require a more comprehensive cooperation. Humanitarian militarism is no longer an oxymoron. National interests might well be at the heart of it but they can and do equal values.
The bottom line is that humanitarianism and politics are dizygotic twins now. The latter has become embedded in a wider, long-term strategy of democracy promotion, human rights and development. If we are serious about eroding the root causes of conflict, it is a process that should be welcomed and seen as an opportunity rather than a threat.