What does it mean for an organization to claim neutrality? In particular, what does it mean for an organization actively engaged in the production of knowledge to claim neutrality?
Neutrality by simple dictionary definition is as follows:
- Neutrality the quality or state of being neutral; especially : refusal to take part in a war between other powers
- or neutral : not engaged on either side
But in some contexts it is particulary difficult to remain neutral. Writing about the neutrality of the humanitarian organization International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Rieffer-Flanagan describes the many ways critics have argued for the impossibility of neutral humanitarian efforts in modern geopolitics,
Aside from political leaders, various scholars have also bemoaned the crisis in humanitarianism. One scholar, Kurt Mills, has argued that “[t]he traditional ideals of neutrality, impartiality, and independence have become myth.” The inability of organizations such as the ICRC to engage in neutral humanitarianism is, according to Mills, a result of the changes in international relations since the end of the Cold War and especially since 9/11. The changing nature of the global environment has ushered in what Mills refers to as neo-humanitarianism. Neo-humanitarianism “is distinguished by the explicit manipulation of humanitarianism for political or military gain on the ground in a conflict or as a substitute for political and military action.” Neo-humanitarianism has replaced classical humanitarianism because states have co-opted humanitarian NGOs into the foreign policy apparatus and this has made them the targets of non-state actors (such as al-Qaeda) who reject humanitarian norms including elements of the Geneva Conventions. He specifically uses the example of the ICRC in the context of the failures of classical humanitarianism.
Various arguments have been offered as to why neutral humanitarianism is difficult or impossible. Gil Loescher sees a problem in the use of military forces to carry out humanitarian objectives. For Loescher humanitarianism is threatened because “the line between humanitarian activity and military activity has become blurred. During the past [few] year[s] in Afghanistan, for example, American soldiers have frequently worn civilian clothing, carried guns and distributed food. As a result, humanitarian work has become confused with security operations.” Loescher’s point revolves around actors’ use of humanitarian activities for political purposes or self interest. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s reference to international NGOs as “force multiplier[s]” echoes this point. Powell was suggesting that their activities were beneficial to the goals and objectives of the United States. By blurring the lines between state goals and NGO objectives, the neutrality of humanitarian organizations becomes more difficult to achieve.
Rieffer-Flanagan argues that instead of an impossibility or a strict definition, organizational neutrality is based on context.
A state or an organization is not neutral in a vacuum. Perhaps in theoretical or philosophical debates one can discuss neutrality apart from the context of the situation, but in reality neutrality concerns the way in which states and organizations position themselves vis-à-vis the various parties. ...
Organizations claiming to be neutral, like states, have relationships with conflicting parties. To be viewed as a neutral actor, organizations such as the United Nations or ICRC must treat states or armed groups in a neutral manner. The decision making process must be neutral as well. A neutral humanitarian organization should not be an extension of any government’s foreign policy. Moreover, one cannot be neutral and offer assistance to only one side of an armed conflict, nor can one publicly criticize one belligerent for violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and not another if both parties are engaged in the same violations. Furthermore, one cannot appear too close with the belligerents on one side of an armed conflict without compromising the organization’s neutrality...
Another way of understanding neutrality focuses on impact. David Forsythe explains that “the ICRC tries to avoid, or minimize, or balance if possible whatever impact its humanitarian protection may have on the power and status of states and the various factions engaged in power struggles.” This conception of neutrality focuses on not impacting the political environment.
Such critiques and observations are similar to those of science policy scholars that consider the production of knowledge as political. Knowledge and scientific information is valuable to the extent that it enables individuals and groups to intervene in the world and sway opinions. Research is based on personal or organizational concerns.
Scientific neutrality (objectivity or non-bias) is found in how individuals and institutions conduct themselves in the political environment. Advocating for specific policies and producing knowledge on behalf of specific political interests challenges ideals of neutrality.