Acts of Omission

Acts of omission are things we do not do. Sometimes we choose not to act and so leave the world as it is. A humanitarian agency decides not to launch an operation in the Central African Republic because it is so preoccupied in Syria. In a humanitarian assessment, NGO workers make nutritional surveys of children under five but do not ask people about their protection risks. In a government-run IDP camp, a Ministry of Health nurse does not pass information about a recent series of rapes to a human rights agency. A government refuses to respond to calls for help from citizens affected by increasing food insecurity. An armed group has trained its forces in IHL but omits to respect it in the way it attacks government-held areas. These are all things that are left undone. As direct actions of not-doing, the people concerned are responsible for their omissions and would need to justify why they did not act in these particular cases.

Conscious and Unconscious Agency

Moral philosophers have long realized that the consciousness of what we do and do not do can vary. In old English, people used to talk of doing things wittingly or unwittingly. Sometimes we consciously make decisions not to do things. We may decide not to help certain communities, or a government may decide not to increase humanitarian budgets. In these choices, we consciously act upon a situation. At other times, we remain unconscious of the impact of our actions. A humanitarian worker driving fast through the countryside in his Toyota may not be aware that its tyres are spraying dust into the eyes of children walking to school. Hurrying past the same beggar every day and not speaking his language, an NGO manager will not understand that this desperate man is repeatedly asking her if she can help him find his family in the IDP camp where her agency is working. Unwittingly, she ignores his pleas for help. More strategically, a humanitarian agency may be unaware that its cash transfer programme has been infiltrated and monopolized by a local clique, which is now diverting funds from people who need it and are entitled to it. In each case, unconsciously, or unwittingly, people fail to show others respect and care. More positively, we can be equally unconscious of good things that we do. By just turning up and walking round an IDP camp to look for the notebook she left behind that morning, a Red Crescent volunteer may deter a husband from beating his wife out of ill-founded jealousy. A few words of encouragement from a teacher in an emergency school may be the first time a teenage boy has been praised for his intelligence. These words have a disproportionately positive and transformative effect on the boy’s self-esteem, while the teacher remains forever unaware of the positive long-term impact of his words.

This distinction between our different forms and levels of moral agency is very important to any assessment of moral responsibility in and around humanitarian operations. Understanding that we may be judged equally for things we do and things we do not do is essential in moral reasoning. So too is the understanding that we are not always aware of what we do and do not do to others.

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