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Respect and Distance – Médecins Sans Frontières and the Military. By Ulrike von Pilar, Birthe Redepenning

In short by Cornelius Sturm

The exploitation of humanitarian aid by Western foreign and security policy makes it more difficult for independent aid organizations to do their work. In the face of “humanitarian interventions” and “integrated missions” combining military and civilian activities, impartial medical helpers increasingly encounter mistrust and violence. To counteract these developments, Ulrike von Pilar and Birthe Redepenning from Ärzte ohne Grenzen (Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, MSF) call for clear boundaries to be drawn between government, the military, and aid organizations.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, armed forces and civilian helpers have often operated in parallel in the same conflict area. In the course of the “War on Terror” since 9/11, humanitarian aid has become a means of rewarding politically desirable behavior. At the same time, providing assistance to groups labeled as "terrorist" has been criminalized under national law and by the UN. “The consequences for the perceived neutrality and independence of aid,” Pilar and Redepenning write, “have been dramatic.” This drama is particularly evident in Afghanistan which, currently, is “the most dangerous place in the world” for helpers.

For Pilar and Redepenning, there is only one way out. Governments and international organizations need to intensify their efforts to respect the principles of humanitarian assistance such as humanitarianism, impartiality, independence and neutrality, as well as the autonomy of aid organizations. It is not the task of aid organizations "to support any particular ideology or world view; it is merely to save lives and alleviate suffering”.

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