2 March 2022
From Myanmar to Afghanistan, Khin Ohmar and Toby Lanzer explore the complex trade-offs made by humanitarians working under repressive regimes.
Arguing YES is Toby Lanzer who has has 30 years’ experience in international affairs, mostly with the United Nations in various peacekeeping, humanitarian and development roles, which have taken him to South Sudan, Darfur and Timor-Leste among other places. He retired from the UN in 2020 after completing an assignment as Assistant Secretary-General in Afghanistan, and now works as a consultant.
Making the case for NO is Khin Ohmar, the founder and chairperson of Progressive Voice, a Myanmar human rights research and advocacy organization, and a leading voice internationally for peace and security, democracy, and human rights in Myanmar. She co-authored Trauma and Recovery on War’s Borders: a guide for global health workers in 2012.
Toby: When we talk about humanitarian aid, we mean support that focuses on the immediate needs of people and communities struck by conflict or disaster. It’s different to development aid, which concentrates on governments, infrastructure and broader issues such as the rule of law.
Aid agencies have to work with those in power – be it a dictatorship, de facto authority, or elected government – to ensure that life-saving assistance can reach people in need – Toby
For the past 30 years I have worked in both crisis and development settings, most recently in Afghanistan. I believe that humanitarian aid must be neutral. By that I mean that it’s given to people in need regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, race, gender or political affiliation. It follows that humanitarian aid should be unconditional: people receive it with no strings attached – or actions expected in return by them or their governments – because a war or disaster has struck their lives.
As a humanitarian operating under the principle of neutrality, you must dismiss all political considerations. This means you provide medicine, food and shelter regardless of which side people are on – or whether they live under a regime that abuses human rights. Most people in places such as Afghanistan or Myanmar have little or no say in the politics of their country. Simply put, help should be provided simply because the people need it.
Ohmar: In Myanmar, people did have a say in the politics of their country, in the 2020 general elections. Yet, most humanitarian agencies will not work with the legitimate National Unity Government or individual liberation groups as this is seen as ‘political’, whereas working with the illegal military junta that has attempted to seize power through violence is not.
Nothing is neutral about working with the military junta. The junta attempts to control the flow of aid to communities in an effort to weaponize humanitarian aid, making humanitarian agencies party to a strategy of collective punishment. Agencies also lend the junta legitimacy – the one thing it desperately wants – by engaging.
There are other ways to help people displaced by the junta’s attacks and made poor by the collapse of the economy – all caused by the military’s coup attempt – that do not require the co-operation and legitimation of the junta. For example, assistance via cross-border aid.
Humanitarian agencies must not cling on to the principle of neutrality, particularly when working with one side or the other is inherently political. What Myanmar needs is principled humanitarian engagement that genuinely ‘does no harm’. Granting the junta legitimacy and power to dictate who gets help is harmful to the peaceful future that people in Myanmar are striving for.
Toby: When you say that aid agencies are granting the junta legitimacy you are asserting that aid agencies are not neutral. This reinforces that emergency aid should be neutral and I am pleased that you agree on this score.
Too often, humanitarian aid is thought to support regimes or help keep them afloat. I have never provided humanitarian aid to a regime – it goes directly to communities.
When opposing sides think that aid shouldn’t be given in certain places, or disbursed by certain people, at certain times, it almost always means that aid agencies have got it right.
In my own experience, for example in Darfur, it is necessary to work with some leaders or regimes that are unsavoury. Personally, I negotiated almost non-stop with the regime of Omar al-Bashir (for whom an arrest warrant was issued for his leadership of genocide) to gain access to populations in need of protection and assistance.
My talks with the regime were seen by some to confer legitimacy on Khartoum, and cross-border operations from Chad were often considered but impossible to conduct logistically. But I was comfortable in the knowledge that, to the maximum extent possible, aid agencies were providing emergency assistance to the communities who needed it most.
Ohmar: Perhaps it would be better to ask ‘Can emergency aid be neutral?’ My point is that in a highly politicized context, it can’t. The principle sounds good, but is almost impossible in practice.
Misguided attempts to be neutral can tip the balance of an already unequal conflict towards the aggressor. Not by providing support to them, but by kowtowing to their demands and refusing to speak out. UN agencies in Myanmar turned a blind eye to the military’s escalating violence against the Rohingya that ended in genocide in 2017 and continue to play down the junta’s crimes.
You mention ‘opposing sides’. In Myanmar, these are: the military and the people. The junta is deliberately cutting off aid, food and medical supplies to entire communities, and bombing camps for displaced people. These people in areas of resistance are the most in need – but the military will never allow agencies to help them – not unless it has killed enough people to consider the community ‘pacified’.
What if, instead of working with the military, UN agencies worked with the people? Yes, people in Myanmar need emergency aid. But they are fighting for a country where it will not be needed. That country would be realized much sooner if UN agencies worked to provide emergency aid outside military channels, across borders, as they did in Syria.
Toby: I am empathetic to your view regarding Myanmar and I do recognize that each situation is unique. But the principles that underpin emergency aid should apply in each setting regardless of politics.
Nothing is neutral about working with the military junta. It attempts to control the flow of aid, making humanitarians party to a strategy of collective punishment – Ohmar
The application of neutrality is difficult. Working in the most challenging political settings, as I did in places such as Afghanistan or Darfur, was fraught with different authorities wanting emergency aid to go (or not) to certain communities.
There were also times, and now is no exception, in Afghanistan, when those who finance humanitarian response try to use it as a ‘carrot’ or a ‘stick’. Aid agencies – whether part of the UN or non-governmental – should not work in favour of any political outcome or regime, short- or long-term.
But they do have to work with those in power – be it a dictatorship, de facto authority, or elected government – as well as with donors to ensure that life-saving assistance can reach people who need it, in time.
In doing so, agencies should also work ever more closely with, and via, affected people and communities to ensure that they are consulted, listened to and made part of the decisions guiding the provision of assistance.
In Afghanistan and Darfur our constant engagement with all in power as well as the communities themselves, and in particular heeding the principle of neutrality, enabled us to help keep millions of people alive. That is what matters the most.
Ohmar: Keeping people alive through providing them food and healthcare is vital. But Myanmar is a country that has never known starvation or absolute poverty on the scale projected by the UN today.
We have natural resources and a benign climate that should place it among the wealthiest countries in the region. We have a well-educated and resourceful population, more than able to provide for ourselves. And we know what we want: for aid agencies to be political in a way that upholds principles of ‘do no harm’ and is in line with the will of the people of the country. That is, in the case of Myanmar, to be free from military oppression. This is the outcome that matters most to our people.
The UN is providing billions of dollars in aid to assist people in need due to conflict, often for decades. Do humanitarians consider whether their role is prolonging the conflict, while other parts of the UN do nothing to end it? Where is the accountability to the affected people?
No-one wants people to be left to die because of a war they did not create. But equally, no-one who finds themselves in that war should have decisions made for them, without their involvement. To be neutral, you must listen to the will of the people and reject the military in favour of local actors.