Symposium on the Relationship between Politics and Humanitarian Action


On April 4, 2012, a symposium was held in Doha on the dialectical relationship between politics and humanitarian action in conflict areas. The symposium was one of the outcomes of the cooperation agreement between Al Jazeera Network Médecins Sans Frontiéres (Doctors without Borders), and took place on the fortieth anniversary of the foundation of Doctors without Borders. The event also saw the launch of the Arabic translation of the book "Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed," which discusses the experience of Doctors without Borders and the challenges the organization has faced, one of the most prominent of which has been the challenge posed by the positions taken by politicians towards humanitarian work.


Al Jazeera Center for Studies and Medicins Sans Frontiere Symposium on the Dialectical Relationship between Politics and Humanitarian Action

Al Jazeera Network and Doctors without Borders: Working to promote a culture of principles

There has been an evident and steady increase in cases of human suffering in war zones and conflict areas. This is what led the Al Jazeera Network and Doctors without Borders to join forces in working together in order to shed light on pressing humanitarian issues, and particularly the rights of groups negatively affected in such cases, with the aim of seeking to ensure that such groups receive adequate access to relief, care and protection. This goal requires the mobilisation of efforts and energies in order to work together in promoting and strengthening a culture based on humanitarian principles, and to ensure that the rights of human rights defenders are protected under the difficult conditions of conflict zones. This was the point made in the opening speech of the symposium delivered by the director for Al Jazeera Center for Studies, Dr. Salah Eddin Elzein.

Participants in the one day symposium focused their discussions on the complex question related to the often occurring antagonism between humanitarian work and politics. One of the main questions in this regard was as follows: Is humanitarian work, as posited in the view of national and humanitarian organisations, limited to providing relief and alleviating the suffering of those affected while adopting the principles of neutrality, impartiality, independence and inclusiveness for all those in need? Or, conversely, is humanitarian action nothing but political action driven by political considerations, as Dr. Elzein asked in his opening remarks?

The three sessions of the symposium involved discussions that centred on the current condition of humanitarian work: has it retreated and become unable to meet the urgent humanitarian needs and ease the suffering of those affected, or has it become part of military intervention strategies and political agendas. In his opening remarks, director of Al Jazeera Center for Studies Dr. Salah Eddin Elzein argued that there is evidence of the latter possibility, giving as an example the fact that the U.S. administration allocated $ 1.7 billion earmarked for humanitarian action accompanying the invasion of Iraq in 2003. To cover these expenses, Dr. Elzein stated, the U.S. reduced their contributions to the World Food Program by around one billion dollars with detrimental effects on the work of the World Food Program servicing about 40 million people in 22 African countries.

The launch of a debate on the various questions posed by the thorny issues at the intersection between humanitarian action and the political constraints inherent to it is legitimate argued Ms. Ghada Hatem, the Middle East regional director for Doctors without Borders. Ms. Hatem added that Doctors without Borders always tries to maintain flexibility, conducting negotiations in very complex and difficult humanitarian situations to ensure its ability to deliver aid to the people affected. Regardless of the difficulty and narrowness of the space in which Doctors without Borders has in order to be able to manoeuvre as a result of the impact of political forces working to impede and exploit the organisation’s activities—and thereby hindering its ability to carry out its humanitarian work—humanitarian action, argued Ms. Hatem, will always be on the side of the victim; a factor which enables the Al Jazeera Network, as a major media outlet, to play a key role in such humanitarian action.

Towards a more accurate definition of concepts: An essential step in order to understand humanitarian work

One of the main ideas on which the first of the symposium’s session focused was the importance of correcting some of the concepts associated with humanitarian action in its relation to politics.

All humanitarian organisations are in agreement on the notion that their work is based on the principle of humanitarianism and that it is driven by a humanitarian impulse. These organisations are also in agreement on the principle of non-discrimination between those in need in cases of humanitarian intervention; where those in need are not looked at on the basis of their sex, religion or the colour of their skin. There are two concepts, however, that need to be clarified, namely: the concept of neutrality and the concept of autonomy. This need was raised by several people in the discussion following the first session.

It is notable that there has been continuing erosion of the boundaries of what has been known as the field of humanitarian action, limiting the scope of work that can be done in this field. Furthermore, there has been a growing tendency to place obstacles before the actors in the field of humanitarian work. It was as a result of these processes that the concept of negotiation arose.

With the adoption of the idea of negotiations with conflicting parties, the possibility of political exploitation of humanitarian action becomes likely possibility. As such, we find many cases in which the provision of humanitarian assistance often intersects with the interests of influential forces. It is not the role of the humanitarian worker to judge who is at fault in the conflict and who is the victim; what is important is the delivery of assistance to those in need.

The role of humanitarian organisations, including Doctors without Borders, remains limited to the provision of services to people and to save the lives of those in conflict zones without having any role in the conflict itself. The political exploitation of humanitarian aid is not considered to be misuse of these organisations’ roles, rather—in such cases—it is an issue that cannot be avoided so that these organisations can carry out their activities.

Humanitarian organisations: Between the condemnation and the toleration of violations

Organisations involved in humanitarian work, including Doctors without Borders, find themselves in the midst of a complex problem, namely the practical necessity of maintaining a position of neutrality in conflicts while ethically obligated to take a position that does not tolerant the inflicting of suffering and exposing violations of human rights.

Indeed, humanitarian workers find themselves forced into silence in most conflicts, a “necessary silence” that is required so that the performance of the organisation’s humanitarian role is not prevented by powerful political actors in the conflict. This is in accordance with the dictum: "keep silent... and offer your treatment." Humanitarian action in such complex environments requires—in order that it is allowed to go ahead—a great deal of caution and neutrality. Indeed, in many cases Doctors without Borders teams have confronted human rights violators in more than one country, and have subsequently had their position exposed and deprived of the ability to continue the exercise of their humanitarian activities in those countries.

One example of such a case was that of the Yemeni government when it suspended the work of Doctors without Borders. This ban came in the wake of reports, aired by Al Jazeera and other media outlets, about Doctors without Borders’ condemnation of the acts of violence carried out by the Yemeni army against the Houthis in Saada. These reports were based on a document published each year by Doctors without Borders titled "Top Ten Humanitarian Crises" and in which Yemen was among these “top ten.” The Yemeni government considered Doctors without Borders to have violated the principle of neutrality because it had condemned the acts of violence carried out by the Yemeni army without also condemning those carried out by the Houthis.

The Yemeni government required the organisation—in order for the latter to be able to continue its operations in Yemen—to deny that the Yemeni government impeded access to some locations, to also deny that there was a shortage of health services in the country, and also to state that media reporting on Yemen in light of the "Top Ten Humanitarian Crises" report reflected the views of those media organisations and not that of Doctors without Borders. Doctors without Borders accepted the Yemeni government’s offer and published a statement with the telling title "Doctors Without Borders officially apologises for its report on the medical situation in Saada."

This incident shows the susceptibility of humanitarian organisations to give in to political pressure. As such, the challenge facing humanitarian organisations remains how to reconcile between the two sides of the following equation: remaining silent in the face of human rights violations witnessing by humanitarian organisations so that these organisations can continue to provide their services, versus exposing such practices and violations and thereby risking being deprived of the ability to perform their humanitarian work by the influential political and military authorities in the conflict.

There is no doubt that humanitarian action can sometimes become a victim of the conflict in which it tries to intervene. Access to the wounded, the sick and those in need of health care and the provision of assistance in areas of conflict to save lives in return for silence in the face of crimes committed by regimes, armed groups and totalitarian authorities against civilians forces us to pose the question: is silence about these kinds of crimes a form of participation or complicity in the crimes themselves? Or, on the other hand, is it more useful to expose the repressive practices, even if the consequences are the sacrifice of the lives that could have been saved?

In discussions and the presentations made by the participants in the symposium, the view that dominated was that the border between humanitarian action and political positions should be kept clear and unambiguous. The humanitarian role to be played by humanitarian organisations, including Doctors without Borders, is mainly to help the needy and to treat the sick and the wounded. Such services must be available to all those affected in conflict zones. It is not the task of these organisations to take on political and human rights roles, that is the role of media and human rights organisations given as these are the parties entrusted with the tasks of exposing crimes and those that commit them, and to bring about their legal prosecution.

Symposium participants

Doctors without Borders discusses their experience

The focus of the second session of the symposium was discussion of the book: Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed, which narrates the experiences of Doctors without Borders. The story of the organisation’s humanitarian action in war and conflict zones is one of endless harassment and political pressure. The book, co-authored by three researchers, reveals the dangers inherent to negotiating access to crisis ridden areas in a deeply thoughtful manner that explains how "concessions" become legitimate when carried out in the name of humanitarian work.

The book, with its 321 pages, takes the reader along the rugged paths of humanitarian work to show that complex negotiations and worrying compromises required for the success of such negotiations is what enables access to the helpless victims in the midst of armed conflict and health crises.

The concept of independence occupies an important place in the book and the debates it contains. The idea of promoting independence and self-criticism in the organisation’s decision-making processes is a major theme. The book also discusses the organisation's experiences in twelve countries: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, France, the Gaza Strip, India, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Yemen. These are essentially case studies, followed by articles organised by topic that examine the delicate and fragile balance between standing by the foundational principles of the Doctors without Borders organisation which are based on independence, neutrality, impartiality and speaking out publicly on the one hand, and the actual facts and practical realities relating to the provision of humanitarian assistance in complex and dangerous political environments on the other.

Towards cooperation between the media and humanitarian action

The thinking in the prospects for humanitarian action and its relationship to the political and dealing with security and military problems requires a humanitarian social philosophy that expresses and explains humanitarian action and its context, and seeks to separate between humanitarian action and politics.

There is no doubt that the media, and the Al Jazeera Network at the forefront, has a key role to play in enabling such a philosophy and in coordination with the actors in the field of humanitarian action so that humanitarian organisations are not continually accused of carrying out, particularly Western, political agendas, and so that such accusations do not have a negative effect on these organisations’ ability to contribute and deliver aid to the needy. It is also certain that the media's role in raising awareness about humanitarian issues is particularly helpful for the work of humanitarian organisations.

The use of the various social networking media will have an important role to play in supporting the efforts of humanitarian, and for raising and debating the questions raised about the intersection of the political and the humanitarian. The ongoing debate about the ethical and professional dilemmas posed by the overlap between humanitarian action and politics is the way to provide answers that suit the humanitarian and political conditions that prevail in the Arab region and the world as a whole.