Why are humanitarian workers targeted?
On World Humanitarian Day this year the United Nations reported that in various conflict zones in 2013, 155 aid workers were killed, 171 were injured and 134 were taken as captives. We have to ask, what is the justification for such acts?
Let us begin with the illegal occupation of Iraq by the United States. On August 19, 2003, a truck laden with explosives rammed into the Canal Hotel, Baghdad, housing United Nations (UN) headquarters, killing Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Secretary General’s Special Representative in Iraq along with 20 members of his staff. The same day, the head of UNDP, Mark Malloch Brown, said: “We do this [humanitarian relief] out of vocation. We are apolitical. We were here to help the people of Iraq and help them return to self-government. Why us?”
Almost a year later, on June 2, 2004, five Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) personnel were killed in western Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed responsibility, claiming that MSF was working for US interests. MSF announced the closure of its operations in Afghanistan, raising objections to the US civil military intervention in aid as well as US social and developmental projects.
MSF said it worked hard to maintain its independence and a distance from the coalition forces, and opposed attempts to link military objectives with the provision of humanitarian assistance by the US military in Afghanistan. Adam Ereli, a US State Department deputy spokesman, said: “We strongly reject any allegation that our actions have made it more dangerous for humanitarian workers.”
In the aftermath of the UN bombing in Baghdad, individuals within the NGO community quietly acknowledged that they were targeted because of the UN’s failure to stop the war, or to at least reject the US invasion in clear terms.
The perspective of the attackers
From the perspective of the attackers, the answer to the question raised by Mark Malloch Brown in Baghdad, when he asked “Why us?” was clear. The UN had failed to stop the illegal invasion of Iraq and it was now there to calm the situation, giving respite for the occupier which would allow it to establish roots and entrench its version of peace in Iraq.
Analysing the situation from across the Muslim and non-Muslim civilizational divide, collectively, the UN and NGO groups are not neutral or impartial about the nature of future peace. They all work towards a peace that reflects Western values and that is what the war is about – it is a war about the nature of peace.
In 2001, Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, proclaimed:
“Just as surely as our diplomats and military, American NGOs are out there serving and sacrificing on the front lines of freedom… NGOs are such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team.”
Although his comments were rejected by many NGOs, looking at this issue with a wider lens it is a legitimate question to ask, was he wrong?
In today’s world, peace and security is only accepted in the image of western liberal democracies, dictated by state liberalism. There has been a drive to make the world into a single ideology state – liberal democracy. However, the majority of Muslims are not convinced that liberal democracy is any good; what they want is to be able to choose those that would govern them according to Islamic law. In other words, they want a ‘Muslimcracy’.
When the UN or Western liberal-democracies prop up a government in Muslim majority societies, many Muslims see it as suspect or illegitimate. And when these puppet governments are supported in the name of ‘humanitarianism’, especially through civil-military coordination (CIMIC) the civil relief work becomes questionable. NGOs working in partnership with the military will be seen as a “force multiplier” for the puppet government and in an active conflict zone, a legitimate target.
“Human security” or “Modernist global order”
A new phrase is on the tongue of the ‘humanitarian relief workers’ and modernist policy makers; they call it ‘human security’. The term was first coined by the UNDP, Human Development Report: New Dimensions of Human Security in 1994. The report defined seven interconnected elements of human security: economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political. It is an all-encompassing theory of intervention in an attempt to create a specific global ‘order’ of Modernism.
The term was coined in search of a new system of control in the aftermath of a bipolar world. It is an attempt to shift the focus of security from state security to the security of the people allowing the uni-ruler of the world to intervene whenever and wherever under the pretext of securing the people. It appears that in a unipolar world or more precisely Western/modernist-polar world, the western concept of ‘Developmentalism’ is being repackaged under a new term ‘human security’. One of the criticisms of development agencies has been that they are the tools of modernity and westernization imposing itself on the world in the name of progress.
Now it appears that the same thing – development – take two, is served under the banner of ‘human security’, but this time in coordination with the military, in the name of humanitarian aid but keeping a ‘civilian’ face!
Humanitarianism in context
American NGOs coordinating and cooperating with US military in delivering relief to a US friendly secular liberal society is one thing, but doing the same in a US occupied Muslim country is quite another.
Apart from natural disaster zones, CIMIC in conflict zones is problematic. NATO defines CIMIC as:
“The coordination and cooperation, in support of the mission, between the NATO commander and civil actors, including the national population and local authorities, as well as international, national and non-governmental organisations and agencies.”
NATO uses the word “coordination” and “cooperation” side by side. The first means organisation, management and direction while the second is synonymous with collaboration, teamwork and help.
When NGOs cooperate with military commands in meeting shared objectives, then it can be argued that they have taken sides. The question is at what point in its “cooperation” with the military can an NGO differentiate between military, political, and ‘humanitarian’ objectives? In a liberal democratic context, the military and NGOs are extensions of society. For this reason, Colin Powell is right to say: “…NGOs are such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team”. Here the mere act of coordination is not in question, but the whole philosophy behind what is to be achieved is very much in question. Conflicts are not always seen in the light of the immediate war on resources alone but also in the light of the overarching theories of life and civilizational paradigms. Wars are fought to control the agenda of hegemonic states and at times this agenda manifests itself through the soft and hard powers of the warring sides.
From a purely Islamic perspective, the entire foundation of the military and social doctrine that is based on modernity is illegitimate. In Islam, God is sovereign not man.
Civil-military coordination and cooperation in the current global setting is an inward modernist discussion. The debate needs to be widened at the philosophical level. The concerns of other theories of social order must be considered. Otherwise, NGOs operating in a purely modernist paradigm continue to be at risk of being perceived as the soft power arm of the occupying civilization and will remain at risk of being targeted
Many humanitarian organizations work very hard to remain impartial and are, in fact, saving lives, reaching out to millions of disadvantaged people across the world, which must not be forgotten. I pay my respect to all the humanitarian workers who have lost their lives, their freedom and put themselves in harm’s way to help others.
Hashmat Moslih is a political analyst and commentator on Afghanistan. He has an MA in International Urban and Environment Management and served as an advisor to the former president of Afghanistan Burhanuddin Rabbani.
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