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Humanity in Action: Religion, Human Rights and the Question of Neutrality

Date:13 December 2013
Author:Religion Factor
An aerial view of Za’atri Refugee Camp for Syrian Refugees in Jordan. Public Domain, obtained via Wikimedia
An aerial view of Za’atri Refugee Camp for Syrian Refugees in Jordan. Public Domain, obtained via Wikimedia

In today’s blog post,Brenda Bartelink reflects on aid in humanitarian emergency and disaster situations, drawing attention to how religion and human rights are lived out and practiced amidst the multiple moral frameworks that influence humanitarian practice. From secular perspectives faith based humanitarianism is questioned because of the potential threat it poses to realizing the ideal of neutrality of aid. However, human rights approaches also bring in a specific moral framework, which raises the question – is strict neutrality is possible or even desirable in humanitarian practice?

The historical entanglement of religion with humanitarianism is visible in the very word “humanitarianism”, with its historical roots in Christian theology and practice. Christian notions of suffering and relief have to a large extent informed secular views on humanitarian aid. In addition, Christian organizations have played and still play important roles in delivering humanitarian aid (1). Churches and faith-based organizations around the world have organized themselves in various faith-based relief networks. Many of them have adopted the code of conduct for disaster relief, which was developed by the Red Cross and co-signed by three Christian based relief organizations. This code of conduct is based on four humanitarian principles, that of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. Faith based humanitarian organizations working from a religious inspiration desire to be neutral actors, just like their secular counterparts. Relief organization ZOA for example, combines a Christian-inspired value framework and motivation to relieve suffering with a predominantly secular, humanitarian approach of disaster and emergency response in practice. However this commitment to neutrality in the provision of aid amongst religious organizations is viewed with skepticism by many secular actors and is, at times, all too easily undermined. Cecelia Lynch argues that the neutrality of Muslim organizations in particular has been questioned since the War on Terror. She noticed that, as a result, the staff of Muslim organizations emphasized their secular approach to humanitarianism to emphasize their neutrality (2). Are some more neutral than others, and who is the ultimate judge of that? I will come back to that question later, but here I want to point out the power relations in which humanitarianism is embedded. Moreover, the principle of neutrality itself is problematic. In the context of humanitarianism it addresses the desire to provide aid to people regardless of their ethnic, political, religious or other identities. Yet, in its connection to the overall cosmopolitan desire to relieve the suffering of those beyond our borders, it cannot be called value-free. The principle of neutrality therefore expresses the desire to be neutral regarding the people who receive assistance, but it is not neutral in its understanding of human dignity and suffering. This then brings us back to the entanglement of humanitarianism with Christianity; both historically as well as in how contemporary power relations in the field of humanitarianism are shaped.

Human rights in times of humanitarian emergency

Over 60 years now, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights has been shaping views and approaches to improving human dignity around the world. During these years the world has changed enormously. Apart from the highly particular cultural discussions on human dignity that Erin Wilson notes in her blog post, efforts to improve human condition are also contextual and changing over time. Wilson notes dynamism in religion, and in a similar vein I want to highlight the dynamism of the promotion of human rights across different contexts and times. In particular, I want to focus on the context and time of humanitarian emergencies and disasters. It may sound odd to speak of the time of an humanitarian emergency, yet for those who experience such disasters, often the chronology of their lives is interrupted and newly defined as pre-disaster and post-disaster. The same is true for the rules and norms that previously governed communities affected by disasters. They enter a completely other reality, where priorities and values are challenged and altered. Contexts of humanitarian emergency offer an opportunity to enhance knowledge and respect for human rights, however it also poses specific challenges for humanitarian aid.

To understand the challenges of incorporating human rights as a framework for action in humanitarian emergency, it is helpful to explore the frames in which improvement of the human condition is understood, as has been explained by Redfield and Bornstein (3). The first frame is development, which seeks to confront poverty and is focused on material lack and on a rather ‘utopic’ future in which conditions are improved. Development thinking is thus progressive in the sense that it is open, optimistic and focused on a better future. The second frame of human rights is based on a strong legalistic and philosophical language in which wellbeing is framed in terms of justice. Human rights advocacy primarily wants to confront wrongdoing, addressing past injustices and thereby potentially improving the future. The third frame is that of humanitarianism. This frame emphasizes the physical (and increasingly also the psychological) conditions of suffering. Humanitarianism focuses on the here and now, rather than the past or the future. It focuses on the relief of suffering and draws upon moral and medical arguments to justify its cause. This distinction between development, human rights and humanitarianism as frames for improving the human condition reveals a potential tension between humanitarianism and human rights, because these are based on different orientations (the here and now versus the past and the future) and draw upon different scientific fields (medical sciences versus law and politics).

Human rights in humanitarian practice

While dating back to the late 1940s the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become an influential framework for humanitarian practice since the UN conferences in the 1990s. Organizations working in development and humanitarian aid have taken a rights-based approach in their work (4). However, this means a fundamental shift in thinking about human dignity and human suffering. Humanitarian organizations adhere to the Code of Conduct of the Red Cross that provides the basis for three humanitarian principles: non-discrimination, neutrality and independence. Yet in practice these principles are not static. They gain and lose meaning in the practical engagement of humanitarian organizations and other stakeholders. Hilhorst and Jansen have argued that a rights-based approach has changed, and sometimes jeopardized, the meanings of these principles in humanitarian practice (5). Humanitarian workers have increasingly used human rights language to legitimate their actions and negotiate roles between authorities and NGOs. Consequently recipients of aid have also increasingly phrased their needs in terms of rights. For women in the Democratic Republic of Congo it is often easier to access reproductive health services as victims of sexual violence, than with reproductive health problems due to child delivery. The attention to gender as part of the rights based approach in humanitarianism has turned aid recipients into victims of violent men. Hilhorst and Jansen point out that this also has a profound influence on how men are viewed in these contexts, as (potential) violators rather then people in need of support. This example shows that a human rights based approach can also contribute to creating new patterns of inclusion and exclusion that jeopardize humanitarian principles such as non-discrimination and neutrality of aid. Therefore, a human rights framework must also be seen as a specific moral framework in the context of humanitarian aid.

Faith based humanitarianism in practice.

These issues emerged as a critical component of contemporary faith-based efforts to deal with the ongoing humanitarian emergency in Syria during a meeting this week hosted by the Knowledge Centre on Religion and Development. Thea Hilhorst, Professor in Humanitarian Aid at Wageningen University pointed at the fundamental importance of the humanitarian principle of neutrality in her introduction to the meeting. This neutrality can be challenged by religion, but also by a strong human rights approach. Human rights activists also fight for a cause after all. Humanitarian organizations are sometimes involved in fighting human rights violations, which hinders their aim of providing relief for immediate needs such as food, clothes or medical services. In a similar vein organizations who have political or missionary aims, may hinder this aim to provide relief. Hilhorst mainly addressed these direct needs, illustrating that with examples from Zataari, the refugee camp in Jordan. This camp who hosts Syrian refugees, is as big as the Dutch town of Houten (approximately 60km2) and managing access to basic services such as water, food and sanitation is a huge challenge.

The issues of neutrality and impartiality, the principle to not take sides in a situation of conflict, was a central theme during the meeting. The historical bonds of Dutch faith-based organizations with religious organizations and communities in Syria, based on religious notions of solidarity and community are an important foundation for their relief work. How do these organizations combine religious motivations with humanitarian principles such as neutrality and impartiality? As Thea Hilhorst said, ‘neutrality is in the eye of the beholder’, and the people in need of aid are the ultimate judges of that’. Mustapha Bouchalick, from Islamic Relief illustrated this by explaining that the Muslim identity gives his organization credibility in certain contexts, but can easily be politicized as well. In the context of Syria where the conflicts are sectarian rather than religious, they have to carefully involve people from Sunni, Shia and various Christian groups to avoid the blame that they are taking sides. ‘You have to show in your own organization and through the partners you are working with that you are a peacemaker, and that is a real challenge’, he explained.

Feije Duijm from Kerk in Actie (Churches in Action) confirmed this experience of walking on eggshells when providing aid in Syria. He was also boldly honest when explaining the dilemma his organization faces between their humanitarian principles and the strong bond they feel with Christian minority groups in Syria. ‘`A bishop in Lebanon calls us for help because his church is loaded with Christian people from Syria seeking refuge’. He needs help, but too much support from him can give us an image that we are partial. The situation becomes even more complex when we take into account the constituency of Islamic Relief and Kerk in Actie in the Netherlands, who may expect these organizations to support Muslims or Christians specifically. Yet about this, both were very clear. ‘I explain we make situations worse in Syria if we support only Christians, and- by the way- our Syrian Christian partners can often reach out more easily to Muslims than their fellow Christians’ says Feije Duijm.

What these experiences of practitioners suggest is that universal principles do provide a moral horizon for humanity that is highly valuable in humanitarian contexts, a basic shared commitment to assist those in need in the case of the humanitarian principles, alongside a more elaborate vision of the human condition outlined in the 30 Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, for universal principles to have any value, they must be applied in practice, and humanitarian and disaster relief practices are complex, chaotic and challenging. Humanitarian organizations, whether faith-based or secular, therefore need deep knowledge about the context in which they are working to be able to realize their ultimate aim, relief of suffering of people in the deepest need. The urgency of their work requires them also to act. When people facing the Syrian winter need blankets and it is hard to access certain areas of the country due to conflict or government obstructions, it is wonderful to be able to use the networks of religious organizations. Islamic Relief’s Mostapha Bouchalick, underlined this power of practice sharing his ideal to strive for ‘a humanitarian practice in which Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists all work together because they serve a common cause, the relief of suffering of people who are deeply in need’.

Brenda Bartelink is the Senior Project Officer for the Oikos Foundation Knowledge Centre for Religion and Development, Utrecht, the Netherlands. She is also a a Fellow of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain and co-convenor of theReligion and Development Research Cluster. The Cluster will host awebinar on the topic of religion, human rights and humanitarianismon World Day for Social Justice, 20 February 2014. For more information on the webinar, email crcpd.ggw

(1) Redfield and Bornstein. 2011.

(2) Cecilia Lynch ‘Religious humanitarianism and the global politics of secularism’ in Calhoun, Craig J., Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen. 2011. Rethinking secularism. Oxford, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

(3) Bornstein, Erica, and Peter Redfield. 2011. Forces of compassion: humanitarianism between ethics and politics. Santa Fe, N.M.: School for Advanced Research Press.

(4) Humanitarian aid organizations or development may also work on advocacy on human rights for example,

(5) Hilhorst, D.J.M., and Jansen, B.J. n.d. Constructing rights and wrongs in humanitarian action: contributions from a sociology of praxis. Sociology : the Journal of the British Sociological Association 46 (2012) 5.


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