CAIDP Concerned by blurring the lines between partisan support and humanitarian assistance


For Immediate Release

CAIDP Concerned by blurring the lines between partisan support and humanitarian assistance

Ottawa, Ontario, August 14, 2012

At noon today, John Baird, Minister for Foreign Affairs, announced that he was reversing his decision to channel $2 million for medical supplies through a little know Syrian Canadian Group, Canadian Relief for Syria. According to PostMedia News, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada had intentionally chosen Canadian Relief for Syrian because it specifically wants the equipment to reach Syrian rebels.”

Media focus on Canadian Relief for Syria’s lack of track record, or indeed charitable status, its limited staff (six in Canada and six more abroad — three on the Turkish border, another three on the Jordanian border, according to a report in the Star), and its links with Human Concern International (HCI), which was once infamously connected to an ally of Osama bin Laden’s, many professionals in the field are worried about the danger to development and relief workers inherent in blurring the lines between humanitarian assistance and partisan support of a combatant in a conflict situation.

International codes of conduct, standards and guidelines for humanitarian assistance (for example, the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief, which was developed and agreed upon by eight of the world’s largest disaster response agencies in 1994) are clear on the principles of neutrality and impartiality being applied in humanitarian assistance. These principles are important requirements for effective field operations. They are based on widespread experience of agencies engaged in humanitarian response. In conflict situations, their breach could drastically affect the ability of agencies to respond to the needs of the victims. If a warring party believes, for example, that an agency is favouring the other side, or that it is an agent of the enemy, access to the victims may be blocked and the lives of humanitarian workers may be put in danger.

The Canadian Minister for Foreign Affairs, John Baird and International Development Minister Julian Fantino do not seem to understand the importance of these principles. They publicly announced the funding would be used “to provide better and more timely medical care for Syrian civilians who need it,” and Mr. Fantino was quoted as saying that “Canada calls on all sides of the conflict to immediately allow humanitarian access so that assistance reaches those most in need.” According to PostMedia, it was only after questions about Canadian Relief for Syria that the government confirmed the $2 million is for opposition forces and not general humanitarian aid.

This is a growing problem highlighted by the United Nations in “To Stay and Deliver”, a report released in April 2011 which noted that violent attacks against humanitarian aid workers have tripled during the last decade  More than 100 deaths have been reported annually, the majority in areas of armed conflict. UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland stated that the report showed “the importance of granting aid workers access to all parties to a conflict” and criticized the “bunkerization, politicization and militarization” of other humanitarian workers in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where some aid groups have accepted military funding for counterinsurgency work, putting other humanitarian organizations at risk of attack. To address the increased security risks faced by humanitarian workers, the report recommends that aid agencies focus on becoming “more professional, more disciplined and more principled in how they act and how they enforce humanitarian principles and standards in high-risk circumstances.”  This advice applies equally to their funders.

By either not understanding or blurring the line between humanitarian aid to citizens and support to the opposition forces in Syria, Ministers Baird and Fantino have put Canadian and other aid workers in the region at higher personal risk, with the longer term potential more generally to compromise Canadian humanitarian workers’ hard earned reputation for impartiality.

For additional information Contact:

Richard Beattie, President

Canadian Association of International Development Professionals (CAIDP)

CAIDP is a Canada-wide association of professionals working in international development. It provides a voice for international development professional community.