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Why Ukraine is moving the needle on old debates about humanitarian neutrality

‘We can’t have one rule for Ukraine and another for the rest of the world.’

A graphic illustration showing a silhouette of a person. They are facing away, you can only see their back. In front of the person are two arrows. One points to the right the other to the left.

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor, the adage goes. Yet neutrality is one of the core principles underpinning traditional humanitarianism – a precondition, some believe, to navigating aid access amid conflict and warring parties.


Neutrality’s effectiveness, let alone its ethics, repeatedly come under question in conflict. Ukraine is the latest crisis to challenge humanitarian orthodoxy.


The International Committee of the Red Cross found itself embroiled in controversy during access negotiations last year when its former president, Peter Maurer, was pictured shaking hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Humanitarians must speak to all sides, Maurer said, but many in Ukraine were outraged: The Ukrainian Red Cross reported facing a backlash from the communities it tries to help.


Ukrainian officials have also urged the ICRC to replace the term “crisis” with “war”, and “both parties to the conflict” with “Ukraine and the aggressor state of the Russian Federation”.


Ukraine continues to challenge conventional interpretations of neutrality, led by a Ukrainian aid movement that benefits from enough public goodwill and financial independence to keep an arm’s length from the wider international aid sector.


The New Humanitarian spoke to 12 programme staff, researchers, or managers in international and national NGOs who described how neutrality is being questioned, the repercussions for aid, and what the future may hold.


This isn’t the first debate on humanitarian neutrality – shades of this discussion have taken place in Myanmar, Palestine, and elsewhere. But with high visibility and strong public support, Ukraine may be where the power balance tips in favour of change – allowing for a broader definition of humanitarianism beyond Ukraine’s borders.


The humanitarian orthodoxy

International aid workers remain the strongest stalwart of neutrality within Ukraine. 


Traditionally, assistance is based on humanitarian principles including neutrality, independence, and impartiality. These principles are codified in UN resolutions, and baked into the DNA of organisations like the ICRC.


“It is precisely because of our neutrality, and the fact we do not take any political sides, that we are able to work on both sides of the front line,” said Crystal Wells, speaking on behalf of the ICRC. 


International aid staff told The New Humanitarian they found themselves having to justify their neutral stance more in Ukraine than in other crises – to the general public and to their aid partners. A country director of a major international NGO attributed this to unwavering public support for Ukraine in the places where charities fundraise and are headquartered, and on taboos associated with contact with Russia.

A graphic with this quote: ‘We can’t have one rule for Ukraine and another for the rest of the world.’


The director said that before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, they used to oversee aid convoys to the Russian-occupied parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, parts of which Russia has occupied.


“Talking to the Ukrainian government, we used the language of neutrality, arguing civilians in areas occupied by Russia were in need like other Ukrainians. Even the Russian government accepted since we had no stake in the conflict,” the director said. “This would be impossible now as it means working with Russian authorities – a red line for Ukraine.”


Like several others quoted in this piece, the international NGO director spoke on condition of anonymity, fearful of being shunned by humanitarians on both sides of the debate.


A researcher studying the aid response in Ukraine said cracks are starting to show in international NGOs’ commitment to neutrality, partly because of the political priorities of the donor governments that fund the bulk of international aid – largely Western allies of Ukraine.


Before the Russian invasion, half of donor funding was earmarked for non-government controlled areas or NGCA – aid speak for the areas under Russian control. Now, he argued, donors were reluctant to fund aid in these areas, concerned about raising the ire of the Ukrainian government: He pointed to the prosecution of an employee working for local authorities who delivered aid in an occupied area. 


He called upon donor states to negotiate with the Ukrainian and Russian governments to allow access. “Once you’ve shown which party you’re partial to, it’s hard to claim neutrality later down the line,” the researcher said.


These concerns aren’t limited to Ukraine. “Russia is involved in conflict across the globe – from Syria, to Central African Republic, to Nagorno-Karabakh,” he said. “We can’t have one rule for Ukraine and another for the rest of the world – that’d put all our operations at risk.”


Weapons as aid

Traditional interpretations of humanitarian neutrality are increasingly at odds with the Ukrainian government, national NGOs, and even international donor governments.


For example, the Ukrainian government defines humanitarian assistance within its legislation as “preparation for armed defence of the state and its defence in the event of armed aggression or armed conflict”. 


On the six-month anniversary of the war, 93 national NGOs wrote an open letter to international humanitarians, demanding they “let local civil society actors decide our priorities and how we wish to act in solidarity”. And in Ukraine, priorities include explicitly helping the war effort – a clear red line in traditional humanitarianism. As one Ukrainian aid worker put it: “The war won’t be won with non-food items, but with weapons.”


These views are shared by Anna Novikova, a board member of the charitable foundation Dream Ukraine, which delivers food and medicine to civilians – as well as armour, shells, and drones to the military. 


“It’s very simple – faster win, faster peace,” Novikova said, pushing back when questioned whether her organisation’s security is compromised by its partiality. 


“They (the Russian Federation) don’t like Ukrainians,” she said. “That’s enough for them to make terror on me.”


Neutrality is neither practical nor a guarantee of safety, said the head of protection at a Ukrainian NGO, pointing to the September 2022 shelling of a civilian aid convoy where 30 people were killed


Considering tiny footprints and limited funding, he questioned how small community-based organisations could even work on both sides of the front line to ensure they wouldn’t be associated with one party to the conflict. In any case, he argued that such expectations would be unthinkable for his staff. 


“It’s much easier to be neutral when your staff’s link to Ukraine is a professional one,” he said. “Our brothers and fathers are on the [front line]. Our civic responsibility – our duty to each other – comes above our professional identity.”


Ultimately, many Ukrainian humanitarians are perplexed about the purpose of neutrality. They believe it has paid few dividends, since access to occupied areas remains challenging even for international NGOs that have maintained a neutral posture. For them, neutrality is an archaism better suited to the Battle of Solferino than to the 21st century. 


The future of neutrality

There are signs that Ukraine has the potential to move the needle on discussions about humanitarian neutrality.


One aid worker said the emphasis on neutrality at their international NGO was more relaxed than in other aid responses. Staff felt comfortable making social media posts, for example, and Ukrainian partner NGOs engaged in advocacy previously seen as off-limits – such as expressing joy at the liberation of occupied areas.


There may be a double standard behind this: “I’ve felt international humanitarians are willing to relax neutrality in Ukraine because they have stereotyped opinions on people being violent in other countries and there being ‘no good side’ to support,” the aid worker said. 


In other emergencies where national NGOs depend on international funding, there is a financial incentive to stick to conventions on neutrality. But the immense global grassroots support for Ukraine means these NGOs are not reliant on international aid.


“We’ve crowd-funded from the UK, USA, New Zealand, Canada,” said Novikova of Dream Ukraine. “We invited businessmen and journalists to Ukraine, and when they return, they fundraise for us.”


In any case, there’s no easily accessible pot of funding for Ukrainian NGOs – less than 0.1% of international aid funding went directly to local responders in the first three months of the conflict. 


“Without significant money on the table, the discussion on neutrality will remain a moot point,” the researcher said. “There won’t be reconciliation until donors fund [national] NGOs directly, where they’d need to temper their opinions on neutrality to meet their localisation commitments, and local actors would need to compromise to gain funding.”


Graphic with this text on it: “If international donors don’t want to fund us since we’re giving the military arms – fine, we’ll just fundraise elsewhere”

For now, Ukrainian civil society has the social and financial capital to forge its own path. “The ICRC is riding a horse on a highway,” said a second Ukrainian humanitarian working in protection. “Their work is no longer applicable for the wars we have now. I’m not against horses – I just don’t want to be like them.”


When it comes to the future of neutrality, humanitarians who spoke to The New Humanitarian raised three possibilities. 


First, Ukraine could become a “special case”, whereby the double standards emerging in the response are accepted, while international humanitarians continue to demand neutrality in other conflicts. 


Second, neutrality could be imposed upon Ukraine NGOs, with a “take it or leave it” approach that grants funds and a seat at the table on condition of neutrality. However, given Ukrainian NGOs’ social and financial capital, this would likely cause a schism in the sector. 


“If international donors don’t want to fund us since we’re giving the military arms – fine, we’ll just fundraise elsewhere,” said the head of protection at the Ukrainian NGO.


Third, the Ukraine response could allow for a broader definition of humanitarianism, affording more flexibility on neutrality in other conflicts. 


It would be uncomfortable to relax neutrality standards within Ukraine without a broader shift in global policy, as local staff in Palestine or Myanmar question why their colleagues in Ukraine are held to different standards.


The running thread between international and Ukrainian humanitarians was that they saw this third way as the only feasible option. 


“One rule for Ukraine and another for the rest of the world will undermine neutrality, and it will be hard to impose our modus operandi on Ukrainian civil society,” said an advocacy officer at an international NGO. “The only way forward is to compromise.”


Edited by Irwin Loy.

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