Une équipe de MSF est contrôlée par les militaires en Colombie

NATO and the NGOs: honeymoon over

Fabrice Weissman

Graduated from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, Fabrice Weissman joined MSF in 1995. He spent several years as logistician and head of mission in Sub-Saharian Africa (Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, etc.), Kosovo, Sri Lanka and more recently Syria. He has published several articles and books on humanitarian action, including "In the Shadow of Just Wars. Violence, Politics and Humanitarian Action" (ed., London, Hurst & Co., 2004), "Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed. The MSF Experience" (ed., Oxford University Press, 2011) and "Saving Lives and Staying Alive. Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management" (ed., London, Hurst & Co, 2016).

On March 3, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen sent a direct appeal to the humanitarian community. Acknowledging the limits of military force - "hard power" - in the stabilization and reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, he wants to create a closer partnership with the NGOs, whom he sees as a key element of NATO's "soft power".

The reaction from the NGOs was swift and sharp. ACBAR, the coordinating body for about a hundred NGOs working in Afghanistan, responded through a press release "deploring" such a statement, which "puts at risk the lives of civilians affected by conflict and those delivering assistance to the people of Afghanistan," and reminding NATO of the various commitments made by its member countries guaranteeing NGO independence and neutrality. Neutrality is described as an inviolable legal principle upholding the total separation between military/political and humanitarian action: "The true nature of a Non Governmental Organisation is independent, which is inherently incompatible with support to any military or political strategy."

This show of allegiance in favor of neutrality is somewhat surprising coming from the international NGOs, the vast majority of which supported the Taliban regime overthrown in the name of human rights. In 2003, eighty of them called for sending more NATO troops to Afghanistan, "so that democracy can flourish." The majority of NGOs and UN agencies are funded by NATO member states, and act within the "Afghan Compact" policy framework aiming at "building the capacity" of the Afghan state, which they officially serve as subcontractors (or "implementing partners"). Though today ACBAR members are refusing to be a part of NATO's "soft power," as recently as March 2008 they were still stressing the importance of their role in the international effort to "stabilize" Afghanistan.

The alliance between the international forces, the Afghan government, and the NGOs had its virtues as long as NATO forces still had the military advantage and controlled nearly 90% of Afghan territory. Up until 2005, the NGOs "embedded" in the "reconstruction of Afghanistan" were able to establish themselves in the wake of the international troops and their local allies, without worrying too much about the reaction of the then extremely weakened opposition.

If the ACBAR NGOs are now returning to the principle of neutrality, it's not from a sudden burst of humanitarian conscience. It's simply that NATO is losing ground. Aside from the large cities and parts of northern and central Afghanistan, the country is now in the hands of the insurgents. Taliban forward positions are only a few kilometers from the capital, which is itself at risk of suicide and rocket attacks by the opposition.

Aware that a NATO defeat is now not only possible, but likely, the NGOs are rediscovering the virtues of neutrality. In so doing, they underline the fact that neutrality isn't just a philosophical principle that can be cast aside in favor of "the moral superiority of human rights," but a pragmatic choice rendered necessary by a reading of the power relationships in an armed conflict. In order to be protected and gain access to the population, you have to be tolerated by all parties to the conflict - and thus ally to none.

To cite this content :
Fabrice Weissman, “NATO and the NGOs: honeymoon over”, 9 avril 2010, URL : https://msf-crash.org/en/blog/rights-and-justice/nato-and-ngos-honeymoon-over

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