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The International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan: reasserting the neutrality of humanitarian action

  • Fiona Terry


Neutrality as a guiding principle of humanitarian action was roundly rejected by most actors in Afghanistan's latest conflict. One party to the conflict commandeered assistance and aid organizations into a counter-insurgency campaign, and the other rejected Western aid organizations as agents of an imperialist West. The murder in 2003 of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) water engineer Ricardo Munguia, because of what he symbolized, cast doubt on whether the ICRC could be perceived as neutral in this highly polarized context. Rather than abandon a neutral stance, however, as so many aid organizations did, the ICRC persevered and, through some innovative and sometimes risky initiatives, managed to show both sides the benefits of having a neutral intermediary in conflict. Today, the ICRC continues to expand its reach to Afghans in dire need of humanitarian assistance.



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1 Sengupta, Kim, ‘Aid workers feel the fatal chill of new Cold War’, in The Independent, London, 10 May 2004. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) use a combination of civilian and military resources.

2 Although it has never been confirmed, it is widely believed to have been Mullah Dadullah on the other end of the satellite phone who ordered Ricardo's execution. Dadullah was a particularly brutal frontline commander under the Taliban and a member of the leadership council formed after the fall of the Taliban regime, who was based in Quetta and conducted operations in the south. He was killed by NATO forces in May 2007.

3 See, e.g., Peter J. Hoffman and Thomas G. Weiss, Sword & Salve: Confronting New Wars and Humanitarian Crises, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD and Oxford, 2006, p. 99; O'Brien, Paul, ‘Politicized humanitarianism: a response to Nicolas de Torrente’, in Harvard Human Rights Journal, Vol. 17, 2004, pp. 3139.

4 Internal ICRC document, 29 April 2008.

5 Internal confidential document.

6 See Tom Coghlan, ‘The Taliban in Helmand: an oral history’, in Antonio Giustozzi, Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field, Colombia University Press, New York, 2009, p. 133.

7 Graeme Smith, ‘What Kandahar's Taliban say’, in A. Giustozzi, above note 6, p. 193.

8 Interview in Kandahar, 25 November 2008.

9 G. Smith, above note 7, p. 194.

10 MSF in Afghanistan, MSF leaves country following staff killings and threats, December 2004, available at: (last visited 2 December 2010).

11 One Afghan commander who is subcontracted under the US government's $2.16 billion contract for support to the US supply chain in Afghanistan, for instance, charges a protection fee of $1,500 per truck between Kabul and Kandahar. He guards around 3,500 trucks per month, generating a monthly revenue of some $5.2 million. See the June 2010 report by the Majority Staff of the US Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, John F. Tierney (Chair), Warlord, Inc: Extortion and Corruption Along the US Supply Chain in Afghanistan, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, US House of Representatives, June 2010, p. 18.

12 Interview with Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for Afghanistan, UNAMA compound, Kabul, 18 November 2008.

13 Interview with Abdul Qayum, NDS Director, Kandahar, 24 November 2008.

14 Borger, Julian, ‘Our man in Kabul says US strategy is failing’, in The Guardian, 2 October 2008.

15 See Blackwell, Tom, ‘A big morale booster: Canadian, Afghan troops uncover arms, medical supplies in farmer's field’, in National Post, 11 October 2008, and his subsequent article, ‘We don't pick sides in war, Red Cross says: agency equips Taliban with first-aid supplies’, in National Post, 14 October 2008.

16 Jon Boone from the Guardian read about this activity in a public ICRC newsletter yet called it a Guardian ‘exclusive’ and neglected to mention that such training has been going on for years. Boone, Jon, ‘Red Cross gives first aid lessons to Taliban’, in The Guardian, 25 May 2010.

18 Islamic Emirate Afghanistan, Code of Conduct of the Mujahideen, Quetta, May 2009.

19 ‘Afghanistan: mines prevent resumption of normal life in Marjah’, ICRC News Release 10/34, 5 March 2010.

20 Anderson, Kenneth, ‘Humanitarian inviolability in crisis: the meaning of impartiality and neutrality for U.N. and NGO agencies following the 2003–2004 Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts’, in Harvard Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 17, 2004, p. 63.

21 In T. Blackwell, ‘We don't pick sides’, above note 15.

22 See William Maley, The Afghanistan Wars, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2009, pp. 168–172.

23 Jacques de Maio, personal correspondence, October 2010.

* The author would like to thank Jacques de Maio, Reto Stocker, Bijan Farnoudi, and Patrick Vial for their comments on an earlier draft. This article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily those of the ICRC.

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The International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan: reasserting the neutrality of humanitarian action

  • Fiona Terry


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