Myth Busting the Red Cross Principle of Neutrality

Story by Nadia Kalinchuk, Migration Focal Point, Washington, DC

In the time I have been at the Red Cross, the fundamental principle that I go back to time and time again is neutrality.  Working in the field of migration, an issue which can be highly politicized, it is integral to stay grounded in neutrality, while also remaining keenly attuned to the principle of humanity. 

In fact, one colleague from the Austrian Red Cross once explained neutrality as being interpreted through the lens of humanity and impartiality.  When I sat down to write this, I thought of what I would have wanted to know about neutrality on that first day at the Red Cross, and of how neutrality has influenced the work I have engaged in thus far.  In particular, I want to bust the myths around neutrality, providing clarity on this principle and connecting it to the importance of humanitarian diplomacy. Myths are everywhere in our language and actions, making it important to understand and debunk them.

Myth #1: Neutrality means removing yourself and your voice from difficult to navigate, often politicized situations. 

I recall a time, when I first started, when I thought that neutrality meant disengagement.  In the space of migration in particular, where the movement of people can be highly politicized (even in terminology), it felt as if migration was one of those sticky topics that one would ask or question our neutrality.  Upon further inspection, I learned through stories of migrants and the work being done by other National Societies that the humanitarian consequences of migration spoke for themselves.  Migration was/is being politicized, and my job is to engage and hone in on these consequences, keeping intact the discussions which seek to protect humanitarian values.

Myth #2: Neutrality means I am merely an observer, providing the objectivity needed to maintain access to vulnerable people.

We have chosen not to let ourselves be cornered by the binary logic of silence vs. denunciation, which inevitably leads to paralysis.
— Peter Mauer, President of the ICRC

Again, this treats neutrality as an end, a binary value in and of itself.  I recall again the words of my colleague, “you can be neutral because you are a coward, or neutral because you are a hero and want to be available to vulnerable people.  Neutrality, in contrast to humanity and impartiality does not tell us what to do, but how to do it to remain operational.”

Myth #3: Neutrality means the Red Cross has no opinion on anything….ever.

This is simply not true.  The Humanitarian Diplomacy Policy of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement states that the collective forces of National Societies are an integral voice in relation to many of the world’s humanitarian challenges, making it a valued voice, which must be heard as much as possible.

Myth #4:  Advocacy is a bad word.

Today, the big question is not whether to speak out but how, when, and to whom we should speak on what, in order to further our objective of preserving human dignity and enlarging space for humanitarian action.
— Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC, 28 April 2015, Geneva, Switzerland

Humanitarian diplomacy, or advocacy, is an imperative (see above).  United Nations has reported that “while the total amount received from donors for humanitarian action has increased in recent years, available resources continue to lag behind the growing numbers of people requiring assistance. Donors provided some $8.7 billion to support humanitarian action in 2013–a tremendous amount, but which still left an estimated $5.3 billion in unmet needs.” 

These numbers indicate that the humanitarian needs in the world need more voices rising, not hiding behind a principle. In an area where there is peace, our National Society, the American Red Cross, must act on the principles of humanity and impartiality first and foremost, while remaining vigilant on issues of neutrality.