Mike Penrose in Iraq | Blog Two of Two

Iraqi Kurdistan: ‘Stop stealing our name’

The second in a two part series of blog posts about the crisis in Northern Iraq from Mike Penrose, the CEO of Action Against Hunger in France.

By Action Against Hunger

Aug 29 2014

Day 2

'A roll of the eyebrows and ‘It’s not such a big deal’, ‘look at the problem at hand’ and ‘Why are you making such a fuss’ are often the answers I receive when I get angry and start telling everyone why misuse of the word ‘humanitarian’ is such a problem. I have had all of these said to me of these over the last few days in various meetings with political figures and the United Nations. 
 
I’ll tell you why it is such a issue. I told the story yesterday of the young man who escaped from the hands of the militia causing chaos in Iraq and Syria today. He told of the hardship he faced, and the desire to start his life again. He however is one of the luckier ones. He managed to find some succor in an area where Non-Governmental Organisations such as Action Against Hunger and supporting UN agencies can operate, and provide at least most of the basic necessities of life: shelter, food, water, hygiene etc.
 
There are many more far less fortunate families in areas still under militia control. Hiding, surviving, under constant threat. We as humanitarians cannot reach these people. On my trip from Dahuk to Erbil yesterday, I drove within an hour of where some of the most desperate people are living, yet we couldn’t get to them.
 
The reason we cannot reach them is because the militias would kill us for trying. Even if we came unarmed (as we always are) and with only the basic necessities, they would be suspicious and probably assume we were the ‘enemy’, and any person seen with goods provided by us would be at serious risk. 

The challenges of providing humanitarian assistance

Whilst a lack of access to some areas has always been a problem in humanitarian work. It was never as bad as it is today in some areas of Iraq. In most conflicts, as long as we were properly identified and adhered strictly to the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence we would, for the most part be accepted, admittedly sometimes begrudgingly, by all sides. I myself have worked in many militia held areas in the past, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Somalia to name a few, and whilst I cannot say it was always safe, there was often an opportunity to achieve some sort of access to those most in need.
 
This is not the case today, as I have explained above. In many areas of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and West Africa, the most needy communities receive very little. This lack of supply is because the word ‘humanitarian’ has become associated with politics. It has lost its credibility and its ‘neutrality’. Many assume that it is a cover for an alternate agenda.
 
This is why in reference to Iraq, when I recently heard a number of senior politicians from several different countries using phrases like ‘we need to use all of the available tools to bring stability in Iraq, political, military and humanitarian’, I got so upset. This is a short sighted solution to a much bigger problem and it puts us all at risk. The more politicians appropriate our word, the more they devalue its capital and challenge its effectiveness. The more they infer that some military objectives are ‘humanitarian’ or associate political solutions with humanitarian ideology the less likely it is that armed groups will trust the motives of truly neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian organisations. By doing this they are stealing our only protection, and our only way off accessing those who are most in need.
 
Next time that Action Against Hunger needs to operate in a context like Iraq, where the needs are enormous, my dream is that our access isn’t limited. That when I talk to people we are helping like the families I talked to in Zarkho, I don’t have to hear their begging for us to help family and friends that they have left behind, knowing full well that we can’t.
 
This is why I would like the word ‘Humanitarian’ word to be considered sacred. Not a politically useful expression. To be used by only those who adhere fully to humanitarian values. As its use today might help a specific crisis, but it will not be the last, and we run a very great risk of sacrificing our ability to help in the future for the convenience of today.

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Photo credits:  © Rob Holden