Blurred lines between humanitarian and military involvement

Once upon a time, it was easy to know when we were at war: a proclamation was made. …. Things are done differently now. [Now this is ushered in via a media release] entitled “International Supply Mission to Iraq”, adding that “following the successful international humanitarian relief effort” air-dropping supplies to stranded refugees in northern Iraq, the [military] would now conduct “further humanitarian missions”.

Then things got a little confusing. The next sentence stated the US had asked us to “transport stores of military equipment, including arms and munitions”. Which seemed strange. You don’t need to be especially intimate with the dictionary to know the definition of “humanitarian aid” doesn’t generally include guns.

The word “humanitarian” was featured four times in one short statement and yet it seemed to be saying that we were dropping weapons to militants. It was hard to know whether this meant war. But it definitely meant spin.

In the intervening month the government’s avoidance of the “w” word has reached farcical levels. The word “humanitarian”, on the other hand, is tossed around, confetti-like, in discussions about the type of (military) assistance we are offering the international coalition to combat ISIS.

So why is it important what label we put on our involvement? It matters, a great deal, for two reasons. The first is that, as anyone who works in the humanitarian aid sector will tell you, the blurring of the line between humanitarian and military intervention in a war zone can cost lives.

Humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross have spent a lot of time and money educating local populations that they are relief organizations with no political objectives, and therefore they should not be targeted in conflict.

Outfits such as the ICRC and Medecins sans Frontieres offer humanitarian assistance to the most needy, and cross the lines of conflict on that basis. That firm distinction between military action and aid is what they rely upon when they enter battlefields and drive through war zones.That distinction is the only thing that stops the large red cross on the back of the beaten-up 4WD from becoming a target.

[Jacqueline Maley, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald]

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