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Justice versus Neutrality: The Politicization of Humanitarian Aid in the Middle East

via The Library of Congress

In May 2018, the Trump administration implemented a ‘maximum pressure’ policy on Iran, aimed at limiting the development of the nation’s nuclear program. This policy involved intensifying economic sanctions, especially on the international banking system, prompting banks to withdraw from engaging with Iran for fear of becoming the subject of American sanctions themselves. International Humanitarian Law emphasizes the free passage of humanitarian aid and protection of civilians, even in the face of diplomatic breakdowns; by funding the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the United States has created an illusion of compliance with global humanitarian standards. However, despite America’s nominal exemptions for humanitarian trade in accordance with the principle of neutrality, the reality of economic sanctions is that Iranian citizens’ access to food and medical care has been compromised. 

The humanitarian repercussions of US policy in Iran illuminate the ways in which aid is an inherently political tool. Middle Eastern politicians have criticized the political agendas of Western humanitarianism as fundamentally undergirded by Christian proselytization. Even if the religious tenor of humanitarian aid—implied by names such as the Red Cross—is not rooted in fact, it undoubtedly casts a shadow of partiality over Western intervention in humanitarian crises across the Middle East. Whether issued directly by governments or NGOs, Western humanitarian aid to the region has been unable to uphold the standards of neutrality that have long been framed as central to its effective implementation.

The origins of nominally apolitical humanitarian aid lie in the conception of the ICRC in 1863. Henri Dunant, a Swiss businessman, happened upon the brutal aftermath of the 1859 Battle of Solferino during the Second Italian War of Independence. Dunant’s abhorrence towards the scale of inhumanity and suffering evident in the neglect of wounded soldiers who lay unattended and dying in the field propelled him to create the ICRC: A global humanitarian organization that would care for the wounded regardless of which side they fought for. Soon after, in 1864, the first Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded Armies in the Field was adopted, guaranteeing international neutrality for relief organizations. The tenets of impartiality, independence, neutrality, and humanity thus became globally established as central principles of humanitarian aid, and they have been reaffirmed by two UN General Assembly Resolutions.

Despite such claims to neutrality, the ICRC has come under criticism from Islamic political leaders from Sudan to Jordan for advancing Western political agendas worldwide. This critique is grounded in two main issues: the Swiss affiliation of the organization and the religious symbolism of the cross. First, humanitarian organizations and political leaders from the Global South perceive the ICRC and Swiss politics as inherently intertwined: Many senior staffers worked in Switzerland’s government before joining the ICRC. This relationship limits the extent to which the ICRC can truly be perceived as a body independent of political affiliation. Moreover, the Christian implications of the cross symbol hold special sensitivity in Middle Eastern history. The cross recalls the legacy of the Crusaders and their ravaging of the Arab world in the Middle Ages. Despite the arguable contemporary irrelevance of the Crusades in the modern Middle East, Arab leaders weaponize such religious symbolism to critique Western intervention in the region, thus giving it political significance. For example, Sudanese politician Hassan al-Turabi denounced Western NGOs as having “no connection with true charitable objectives… simply a means to realize their personal objectives. Certain NGOs conspire against Islam in the name of charity.” This emphasis on personal gain is evident when considering humanitarian aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1980s. The US government not only funded NGOs but also advised them on their programs, resulting in several NGOs present in the region, including the ICRC, bringing their efforts in line with American policy. Moreover, US humanitarian aid to camps in Pakistan, both directly and via NGOs, was publicly proclaimed to aim at housing three million Afghan refugees: In reality, the aid was largely targeted at sustaining mujahideen fighters battling Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, illustrating the anti-Communist framework of American aid. Crucially, the greatest bilateral donor to the region in the 1980s was the United States, providing about one-third of all funding and humanitarian aid and thus fundamentally wielding influence over how it was issued. Such influence illuminates how aid delivery is shaped by power asymmetries on the global stage: The desires of the most powerful nations, especially the United States, determine the implementation of aid.

In 1929, the ICRC movement conceded to pressure from the Ottoman Empire for an Islamic symbol and authorized the Red Crescent as a second emblem of the movement. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has consciously moved away from exclusively Christian symbolism: The Red Crescent is typically used in Muslim countries, and the Red Cross in all others. However, the ICRC continues to officially use the cross. In Muslim states like Iran, Oman, and Yemen, where a form of Shari’a Law forbids the display of non-Muslim religious imagery, the ICRC’s Cross is viewed as threatening state authority and legitimacy. The Oman Charitable Organization, founded in 1996, has been the primary point of humanitarian aid in the region, though it is limited by fuel shortages and a lack of trucking capacity. Only in 2015 was the ICRC granted jurisdiction to operate as the Red Crescent in Oman in response to the humanitarian crisis in neighboring Yemen, illuminating how the ICRC’s affiliation with symbols of Western Christianity has limited the effective provision of aid. 

Debate over the ICRC’s Christian symbolism is symptomatic of a more fundamental ideological disjuncture between Western and Islamic states’ approaches to humanitarian aid. Opposition to the Cross in states governed by Shari’a law is compounded by an emphasis on justice rather than neutrality in Islamic scripture. Regardless of whether Western humanitarian organizations such as the ICRC have been effective in their goals of neutral, impartial aid, the principle of neutrality itself does not necessarily align with Islamic humanitarian values. Islamic humanitarian rules of warfare date back to as early as the 8th century CE. These rules are commonly understood as emanating from both the Qur’an and al-Siyar al-Kabir (The Islamic Law of Nations), written in the 8th century by Muhammad al-Shaybani, the father of Islamic international jurisprudence. There is some overlap between Western and Islamic humanitarian rules of warfare—namely in distinguishing between combatants and civilians and refraining from inhumane conduct. But with regard to humanitarian conduct, Islam crucially emphasizes justice over neutrality. This conflict between Western neutrality and Islamic justice is manifested in the Islamic Committee of the International Crescent: When it was founded in 1982, its leaders sought to reframe justice, rather than universality and unity, as the central principle of humanitarian aid. Where neutrality is seen as maintaining the trust of all sides involved in a conflict and thereby facilitating the effective implementation of aid, it can be perceived as providing rhetorical sanction to injustices. For example, evidence emerged in 2004 that the ICRC had known about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib at the hands of US soldiers. ICRC officials continued to regularly visit Abu Ghraib and diplomatically engage with Washington. ICRC cooperation with governments committing human rights abuses is therefore an opportunity for such regimes to posture as humane. Humanitarian aid from both governments and NGOs is therefore inherently political, crucially informed by who is on the side of justice, and who has violated it.

Justice, as defined by a particular religion or government, is an undeniably flawed means of determining who gets humanitarian aid. However, the apparent neutrality of humanitarian aid issued by NGOs but funded by governments such as the US merely veils Western political agendas. The religious symbolism of aid organizations such as the Red Cross is not the core issue, but it exemplifies the many other biases that accompany aid. Ultimately, humanitarian aid is inseparable from wider political agendas. The solution does not lie in attempting to entirely depoliticize and neutralize humanitarianism, as the rhetoric of organizations such as the Red Cross would suggest. Instead, it is found in promoting transparency in humanitarianism when it serves an ulterior purpose and informing attempted neutrality with the realities of injustice.