II: An ethnography of humanitarian protection

Intermediaries and the humanitarian network


A small red cross emblem clipped to his shirt, the ICRC delegate rims through the well-rehearsed presentation, outlining the laws of war to another cohort of soldiers. Today the presentation is being carried out in the Kurdish zone of northern Iraq, some 100 kilometres from where a fierce battle for the control of Mosul will soon take place. The audience are junior officers of the Peshmerga, the military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Dressed in US-style desert camouflage, the young officers sit in neat rows in the conference room, listening attentively to a presentation that countless other soldiers have heard. In its simplest form, the delegate’s message can be caricatured as “you shouldn’t target civilians because it is against the law”. It is almost identical to what I heard more than 20 years ago, as an Australian Army recruit sitting among another group of young men in desert camouflage. I remember it as a welcome break from the gruelling repetition of rifle drills and cleaning equipment. Then, as now, a neatly dressed ICRC dissemination officer introduced us to the legal concepts of proportionality and restraint, the need to avoid unacceptable human suffering and the protective significance of the red cross emblem. In fact, with incremental updates this message has remained consistent since the laws were conceived some 150 years ago in Europe.

Having been exported around the world, this doctrine remains remarkably consistent irrespective of where it is articulated and by whom. Whether it is addressed to soldiers in Iraq, armed militias in central Africa or teenage recruits in the Australian desert, the language may change but the message is the same. “It’s a universal set of rules that determine what can and cannot be done during armed conflict; they apply to state and non-state actors alike, whether in deserts, jungles or cities,” Pascal, the ICRC delegate leading the dissemination team, explains to me following the presentation in Iraq.1 The message is the same some 4,000 kilometres away at the Swiss headquarters of the 150-year-old humanitarian organisation where these and other ICRC protection delegates have learnt the intricacies of these normative frameworks.

While the Swiss-based organisation has made extensive efforts to internationalise in recent years, almost half of its staff are Swiss nationals. Water engineers, logisticians, military advisers, communications specialists, translators and accountants join the stereotypical health professional in the regular recruiting rounds. Protection remains a core component of the organisation, attracting graduates of law and international relations who are fluent in tire ICRC’s working languages of French and English. They are inducted into the institution at Ecogia, die ICRC’s training facility just outside of Geneva. There they are taught how to navigate minefields, talk tlieir way dirough checkpoints and respond to kidnappings. It is made clear to them that diey must remain neutral and impartial, and that their security depends on the authority of the red cross and red crescent emblems. From Geneva they are deployed to some 80 countries around the world where the humanitarian organisation is helping people affected by armed conflict and violence. There diey join the mix of United Nations and international NGO staff with similar backgrounds and training, who ply the same trade, providing humanitarian relief to those affected by conflict and promoting the mosaic of legal frameworks that work to protect civilians.

These are the aid workers that occupy the official world of humanitarianism introduced in Chapter 1, where normative frameworks curb the behaviour of armed actors and humanitarians are guided by a set of principles. The first of three empirical chapters, this chapter aims to understand these “official” humanitarians, and their relationships with the normative frameworks and the armed actors these frameworks seek to influence. As this chapter will explain, it is their work spreading the word about these frameworks and principles through dissemination and everyday practice that creates and reinforces the imagery' of the neutral humanitarian space.

In this official role, humanitarians can be viewed as neutral intermediaries, moving freely between the different actors who occupy humanitarian space and disseminating the universal laws and principles as they have been laid out. This chapter begins by examining these humanitarian intermediaries, and how their work has been effective to some extent in creating humanitarian space and limiting the behaviour of armed actors. However, as this chapter goes on to reveal, a complex network occupies this space, made up of multiple, shifting actors who do not always conform to the universal humanitarian norms. Sometimes they simply behave as a state or state-in-waiting, accepting the letter of the law as signed by every nation in the world. Alternatively, they will abide by these frameworks because they align with their own motivations and agendas, whether it is for securing international legitimacy, community support or military advantage. Increasingly, armed actors will selectively reject these legal frameworks, asserting strategic, political or even cultural justifications to target civilians and deny' humanitarian access.

This chapter then examines the official response to these digressions. In the face of these shifting realities, many aid workers and policy makers remain lit-eralists, holding firm to the protection frameworks and finding ways to sustain their relevance to these complex realities. They' remain the intermediaries introduced in this chapter, working to bolster the official narrative that still brings a level of order to the network of actors that occupy the complex humanitarian arena of contemporary wars. A few reject these frameworks, engaging in politics if only briefly and for convenience, risking undermining the official narrative. Meanwhile, some attempt to underpin the official frameworks by finding ways to fix their contextual shortcomings. As the following two empirical chapters of this book will go on to explore, travelling between different actors they modify the official frameworks to suit the context, thus providing an unofficial humanitarian fix.

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