One high-placed source I interviewed in the non-government humanitarian sector said the government’s use of “humanitarian” in discussing its ISIS operations has been a “big issue” in the sector.
“The key thing about humanitarian action is that idea of neutrality and impartiality. The person in the greatest need is given help no matter what side they’re on,” the source said. “The ‘humanitarian’ language becomes problematic if it is called a humanitarian mission and they’re dropping bombs. How do people distinguish?”
A 2014 report by the Aid Worker Security Database showed a steady rise in aid worker casualties since 2001. Many attribute this to the blurring of military intervention with humanitarian assistance.
This is not to say that militaries can’t deliver humanitarian assistance. It is one of their most vital roles in war zones and disaster areas, where they are often the first people able to get help through, before aid agencies have even arrived. This is especially the case in places like Iraq and Syria right now, where even the ICRC dares not go.
Ben Saul, a professor of International Law at Sydney University, says military forces also have humanitarian obligations, for example to protect civilian populations and provide food and medical care. But, he says, during earlier military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, “a lot of humanitarian actors were concerned that there was a blurring of lines between humanitarian and military action”.
If a government is making the most serious decision it can make, to endanger the lives of the military, it owes it to its citizens to be transparent about the reasons why. Are we undertaking a humanitarian operation? …Or are we protecting our national security interests and cloaking that protection in the language of the aid worker, to avoid scaring a war-shy public?
[Jacqueline Maley, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald]