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Humanitarian Aid in Danger

On the video cassette the Qatari television station Al-Jazeera received - but never broadcast for "humanitarian reasons" - a brunette woman with emaciated features begs that her life be spared and then faints. To bring her to, a bucket of water is brutally dashed over her face. She stirs on the floor, weak and soaked, before she lifts herself up, sobbing, asking Tony Blair to withdraw British troops from Iraq. On the following cassette that reached Al-Jazeera, the same woman, with eyes blindfolded, dressed in an orange uniform, will be executed with a bullet to the head.

Why did they kill Margaret Hassan? In the world of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO), her murder has the impact of an electro-shock. Since the death of "Mrs. Margaret," as she was called by Baghdad children, humanitarian white knights are depressed: "We always risk tripping a mine or getting hit with a stray bullet. But to slit our throats for what we are?" despairs Philippe Lévêque, Director of Care France, deeply distressed by the death of his colleague. "This is a slap across the face signaling that they don't want our model. We've fallen from our pedestal. Maybe it's time to examine our own conscience?"

Because the Care director incarnated everything a humanitarian aid worker is supposed to be, her murder demands all over again an investigation into what an NGO's role should be and how it is perceived in conflict zones. An icon of neutrality, commitment, and courage, Margaret Hassan imposed these on her colleagues, who tried several times to convince her to leave Iraq. Moreover, the Americans' Public Enemy Number One in Iraq, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi himself, would call for her liberation: even in the eyes of suppositious enemies, she was "irreproachable..."

In 1961, Margaret Hassan, then 17 years old, married Tahsin Ali Hassan, an Iraqi who was studying engineering in London. In 1972, the couple moved to Iraq. At the British Council, she became a professor of English to Iraqis. Soon, Margaret converted to Islam and became an Iraqi citizen. She spoke fluent Arabic with a strong Iraqi accent. All during the conflict with Iran, she chose to remain in Iraq. During the 1990s, she denounced the impact of sanctions at every opportunity she had. In January 2001, she even went to New York to warn the Security Council of the consequences of a war in Iraq. During the invasion of Iraq by American-British coalition forces, she still chose to remain in Baghdad. After every bombardment, her technicians spread out over the city on their bicycles to repair damaged electricity installations.

Last November, following a grenade attack against Care's office and letter threats, all the organization's expatriates left Iraq. All, except for Margaret, who continued to refuse to be escorted by armed guards in the name of sacrosanct neutrality, the principle which, according to her, humanitarian workers must never depart... The Director of Care France relates that two weeks before Margaret Hassan was kidnapped, she was working on a rehabilitation project for two schools in the Baghdad suburbs, in spite of the danger.

October 19th, men dressed in Iraqi police uniforms stopped her car as she was going to work. Her chauffeur and bodyguard were beaten. Margaret Hassan, who got out of the car to intervene, agreed to follow the armed men as long as they allowed her chauffeur to leave. Since Al-Jazeera's November receipt of the video that seems to show her execution, the British government believes that she was assassinated, but no one has yet found her body. Why should the first Western woman assassinated by her abductors be a woman who had devoted her whole life to the Iraqi people?

"I believe Margaret was killed precisely because she symbolized everything an aid worker should be," writes Peter Walker, Director of the Feinstein International Famine Center. "Her murder sends a very clear message: it doesn't matter that you are impartial, neutral, and independent; it doesn't matter that local populations respect and trust you: even if you are irreproachable, you are still our enemy." For the first time, as Doctors without Borders' President Jean-Hervé Bradol emphasizes, humanitarian aid workers are being designated as targets for what they represent. "In a December 2001 message, Al-Zahwiri, Bin Laden's Egyptian right-hand man, included international aid organizations in a list of his enemies. And one of Margaret Hassan's kidnappers' demands was for Care's withdrawal from Iraq."

Has the war against terrorism sounded the knell for humanitarian aid? Is there no longer any space for humanism in the context of a total war where even NGOs are enjoined to choose sides? While Doctors without Borders withdrew from Afghanistan after five of its staff were murdered, after Salvatore Santoro's murder followed Margaret Hassan's, and as the kidnapping of the two Simona had Italy trembling before its happy outcome, one wonders whether humanitarian aid will not be sacrificed on the altar of the planetary conflict that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks.

In Iraq, Margaret Hassan's murder sounded the retreat for practically all the NGOs. Ever since the attack against the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) offices that killed 12 in October 2003, however, humanitarian aid workers have operated with the greatest discretion in Iraq; all the more so as Colin Powell's statement the day after the attack had contributed to their designation as targets: "We hope that entrepreneurs, the International Committee of the Red Cross, non-governmental organizations and UN agencies...will find a way to stay. Their work is necessary and, if they leave, the terrorists will have won." In a country where everyone suspects everyone and where rumors can be fatal, humanitarian aid workers are often taken for spies. During the summer of 2003, the "International Migration Office" (IMO) was the target of this paranoid malicious gossip. As the director of IMO's Mosul office had a Jewish-sounding name, the local population deduced that IMO signified "Israeli Migration Office." The building's facade was a target for hand-held rocket fire. An IMO driver was killed and several expatriates were wounded. Because they hadn't understood the role of humanitarian aid organizations, Iraqi newspapers accused "Doctors without Borders" and "Children of the World" of being agents working for Zionists.

The rare humanitarian aid workers who skim along the walls of Baghdad today do not like to expound on the threats they receive out of fear of being repatriated or of attracting new attacks. However, for them, as for all expatriates in Iraq, the daily routine is the same. Zigzag cement barriers and sandbags around the entry to house or hotel. Cars made to look old and common and bullet-proof vests in front of the doors every time you move. More and more NGOs have resolved to employ armed guards, which worries many humanitarian aid workers who fear the confusion of the population this measure could bring in its wake. However those who reject this security "sacrifice" may live to regret it. Carole Dromer, who coordinated "Doctors without Borders"' Basra mission, tells how a DWB logistics specialist who was present during the looting of the NGO's headquarters was able to escape: "He had the coalition forces called, but they didn't come. He got out, thanks to the agents of another NGO, "Save the Children," which has armed security forces..."

How to work in these conditions? Even Iraqis employed by humanitarian organizations are in danger of their lives, like the man who works for a French NGO and was forced to change domicile every night for a month after receiving threats...

Many Iraqis, however, expect a lot from international organizations. The disarray of Baghdadis who stood in front of the deserted post-attack ICRC offices and waved the files of their friends and relations imprisoned by Saddam or coalition forces were sufficient testimony to the void left by the organization. Doctor Salam Ibrahim, whom I met last April during the siege of Falluja, made daily shuttles to the insurgents' capital under a hail of bombs. He asked every Westerner whom he met then about these "French doctors" who kept not arriving. But if Doctor Salam, well known in Falluja guerilla circles, was several times the target of mudjahadijn who came to the point of suspecting their "brothers," how could international NGOs have established themselves in the bastion of "resistance" to the American occupation?

"We tried to go to Falluja," relates Rony Brauman, who headed DWB from 1982 to 1994 and who today is part of a circle of reflection on humanitarian aid, "but it was too dangerous; there were very radical groups who didn't want us there." He recalls that it's not the first time that the "French doctors" have been prohibited entry by a too extremist guerilla group (1). It is too risky, for example, to go to the regions controlled by the Maoist guerilla movement in Nepal today. December 14, 2004, a Swiss and three Nepalese who worked for the NGO Helvetas, who had been kidnapped by the guerilla, were freed by the Maoist rebels. It was impossible yesterday to go to the regions of Mozambique controlled by the Renamo, or to go to the regions controlled by Hekmatyar in Afghanistan, still less to Algeria when the Armed Islamic Group was everywhere. "We were also absent from the War in Vietnam, a war that killed a million people! There too, the obstacles were insurmountable. The Red Cross settled for skimping through a few prison visits and, in a more ideological than humanitarian gesture, we sent a boatload of provisions to sustain the guerillas..."

As far as the hunt for humanitarian aid agencies accused of collaborating with occupation forces, that's a problem that has always existed and which the "French doctors" and those who emulate them have confronted since their creation. Brauman underwent his "baptism in war" in Chad in 1980. It was there also that he experienced his first ambush: "They didn't see me as 'without borders', but rather as a French doctor: an enemy. In 1994, in Rwanda, DWB Belgian doctors were arrested because of their nationality. And today in Ivory Coast, we naturally prefer to recruit non-French volunteers... We have always had to juggle with passports."

For a long time in Iraq, French nationality was perceived as a safe-conduct pass. Many expatriates, whether businessmen, journalists, or NGO employees, sheltered behind a French nationality that was sometimes usurped. Counterfeit badges were circulating in Baghdad for a while, until the two French journalists Chesnot and Malbrunot were kidnapped... "When the two French journalists were kidnapped," Jean-Christophe Rufin, "Action Against Hunger" president, explains, "then we understood that there was no logic anymore to any of it. That was when we decided to leave."

Is humanitarian aid agency work really more dangerous now than it was before September 11? NGOs have always been taken for parties to conflict. To cite only a few recent examples, we can call to mind that in 1995 in Bosnia, DWB, ICRC, and United Nations High Commission on Refugee teams were targets of direct attacks by shooters in ambush in Sarajevo and Srebrenica. Or that NGOs who work in Chechnya have lived the last few years in constant fear of attacks and abductions, fears that may be justified by consulting the long list of security "incidents" counted by the NGOs. (See lists below.)

"How can we know whether today's world is more barbaric than yesterday's? How do we compare tortures, decapitations, genocide, gulags, and wars," Brauman asks himself. "What is certain is that there are more NGOs on the ground and therefore more people exposed to danger. And then the situation overall has changed, it's true. Since September 11, the question of occupation has become central to NGOs: in Afghanistan as in Iraq, the non-Islamic NGOs are perceived to arrive in American Army wagons. In Timor or Kosovo, it wasn't a problem because the occupation by foreign forces was perceived as liberating. But since the political context of the war against terrorism, NGOs are enjoined to take sides: they have no choices but to either dissociate themselves from the occupation by withdrawing or to join the efforts of the occupation forces."

More and more often, humanitarian aid organizations are perceived as extensions of the army, charged with assuring "the after sales service" of nations at war... i.e., since September 11, the United States. After the murders in Afghanistan of five employees of DWB, which is, nonetheless, considered the archetype of the independent association, a Taliban spokesman justified their murder by claiming that they were spies in service of the Americans...

It was NATO, that, by declaring a "humanitarian war" in Kosovo, precipitated this admixture of genres. According to Karl Blanchet, Director of "Handicap International," "populations needing help began to distrust the West that held a syringe in one hand and an M-16 in the other." But it was in Afghanistan that the confusion between military and humanitarian aid reached its apogee. In 2001, the United States spent 40 million dollars to airlift 6,000 tons of food in. Only the packets, which contained sandwich crackers with butter or peanut butter, jam, salad, and dressing, were the same color as the cluster bombs the American Air Force had dropped on the regions held by the Taliban and their allies...

NGOs like "Madera," "Action against Hunger," and "Doctors of the World" worried about the establishment of Provincial Rescue Teams (PRT) in Afghanistan. These regional reconstruction teams were composed of US Army Reservists, who are often also entrepreneurs and who sometimes assure, at the same time as the "reconstruction" of the region to which they are assigned, its pacification and door-to-door sales... Because of this confusion of roles, they put the NGOs in danger, especially in the country's South-East, where the population ended up confusing them with humanitarian aid workers. In the Zaboul region some humanitarian workers who had patiently woven connections with village chiefs in these tribal areas had to fold up their bags after undergoing attacks.

In Iraq, the Americans never hid their desire to have the Army supervise the organization of aid, all the better to control Iraq after the war. The NGOs were perceived by the American administration at first as "naive leftists" who understand nothing about the post-September 11 world. The State Department, however, very quickly understood what it could get out of these organizations if they would agree to collaborate. The NGOs, as Colin Powell said as early as October 2001, are "force multipliers," who would allow them to "win the hearts and minds" of the Iraqi population.

May 21, 2003, Andrew Natsios, Director of USAID, the United States' State Department Agency for Development Assistance, announced the terms of the bargain at the annual forum of NGO coalition "Interaction:" "NGOs must obtain the best results and better promote United States' foreign policy objectives, or we'll find new partners."

Since then, a relation of financial and political interdependence has been established between USAID and the five largest American NGOs with which more than 30% of funds are concentrated. It is difficult for others to resist this "Made in the USA" synergy. Sami Makki, a researcher at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes [School of Graduate Studies] has demonstrated in an article for "Humanitaire" (2)(2) how an organization like Care, which denounces "the disappearance of neutrality and humanitarian impartiality," is, at the same time, very dependent on the federal administration. "Thus," he writes, "CARE USA President Peter Bell was one of the members of the civil and military commission on post-conflict operations under the direction of the US Army Association."

DWB, which has a big office in the United States, must now, like all other NGOs, guarantee that its funds will never transit through "terrorist" circuits. "This rule poses all sorts of problems for us," worries Rony Brauman. "The United States has just put Joseph Kony's "The Army of the Lord's Resistance" on the list of terrorist organizations, but it's not possible to work in northern Uganda and not have relations with them." According to Care's Philippe Lévêque, a new requirement the American administration imposes on humanitarian organizations is not only that they prove they have no connection to any terrorist organization, but also that their actions actively participate in the war against terrorism. He explains that, since Margaret Hassan's murder, Care is troubled by debates over the necessity of showing itself more intransigent on the sacred principle of humanitarian aid organizations' independence.

"Margaret's death symbolizes the evolution of humanitarian action since the Second World War," writes Peter Walker of the Feinstein International Famine Center. "Through its financing, recruitment, offices, and interventions, the humanitarian enterprise has come to be perceived and is now accused of being an integral part of the West - A benign component of this system that wants to dominate the planet through the forces of globalization, scientific thought, democratic dogmatism, military superiority, and mass culture."

According to Walker, the future of humanitarian action depends on its capacity to return to being universal, by opening itself up to Islamic financing, for example. By integrating Buddhist or Hindu values, other values, in any case, than those of the West. During a conference given in San Francisco and recorded in an article from " Le Monde diplomatique" of October 2004, the Indian writer Arundhati Roy also denounced the NGOs as vectors of Western liberalism: "Over the long term, NGOs are responsible to their donors, not to the people among whom they work. They are what botanists would call a species' indicator. The greater the devastation caused by neo-liberalism, the more they profit. Nothing illustrates this more poignantly than that as the United States prepares to invade a country, it simultaneously prepares NGOs to go there to clean up the mess," she declared.

It remains to be known what values will be defended by this new humanitarian community Peter Walker calls forth, since by wanting to communitarianize humanitarian aide, one risks losing the universalism and humanitarianism that presided over the creation of the humanitarian aid movement. "We humanitarian aid workers believed for a long time that our values were neutral," explains Jean-Christophe Rufin. "Perhaps because we came after '68. We loved life. We were nice. But we are finally realizing that our values are not shared by everyone. And yet, we continue to believe in them. We don't want children to be in combat. We want to be able to care for women. We are not neutral: obviously, between those whose throats are slit and those doing the slitting, we have our preferences. But for our future, the one thing we may not cede is independence..."

(1) On obstacles to humanitarian operations, see especially "Médecins sans frontières, la biographie"[Doctors without Borders, the Biography] by Anne Vallaeys, Fayard, 768 pages, 25 Euros.

(2) Number 8 of the review "Humanitaire": "Guerre en Irak, au péril de l?ingérance humanitaire" ["Humanitarianism:" "War in Iraq, Humanitarian Intervention at Risk". See also in the "Cahier d?Etudes stratégiques» 36-37: "Militarisation de l?humanitaire, privatisation du militaire"["Notebook of Strategic Studies:" "Militarization of Humanitarian Aid, Privatization of the Military," by Sami Makki.

Translation: Leslie Thatcher.

Sara Daniel

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.

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