Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
Neutrality, the obligation to not take sides in a conflict, is a core tenet of humanitarianism. This ideal is heavily challenged as humanitarian actors engage in brutal and complex situations where tough real-life challenges do not match the normative drawing board. As Carsten Wieland shows, the Syrian conflict acutely demonstrates this. Humanitarian actors fall into the ’neutrality trap’ as they are forced to engage with a plethora of unsavory actors. In terms of scale nobody is worse than the Syrian government: It systematically engages in large-scale breaches of human rights using torture, indiscriminate bombing, chemical warfare, and depriving civilian populations of access to food, to mention only some such atrocities. The regime is also the state sovereign so international humanitarian actors, especially the various UN branches, must do business with the government to deliver aid to Syria at all. The Syrian regime has taken advantage of this, using humanitarian aid to enrich its supporters and strengthen the regime's hand vis-à-vis its opponents. By adhering strictly to norms of international relations, including the sanctity of state sovereignty, humanitarian actors inadvertently strengthen the very regime that is most responsible for the suffering they are there to alleviate. Wieland strongly, and convincingly, argues that serious reconsiderations are needed for how to engage in such difficult situations. Highlighting how there is no simple answer, he makes clear that if humanitarian actors had pressed the Assad regime too hard then it might very well have declined all aid, which also would have been detrimental to the Syrian population. Wieland's book is an excellent and depressing contribution to studies of humanitarianism.