Non-Accountable Organisations

Who gives international NGOs the right to try to run the war?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

In the propaganda battle surrounding the war on Iraq, the voices of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Amnesty International, the Red Cross and UNICEF are often being raised above those of politicians and military spokesmen.

NGOs have issued directions to both sides about what kinds of weapons they can use; what buildings they can bomb; what images of prisoners of war (POWs) they can show; and how the war should be reported.

Some organisations seem to see themselves as judge and jury of the Iraq conflict, presiding over every military engagement to hold the parties accountable. Attacks and TV images are scrutinised, and statements issued if these are decided to have been illegitimate.

On 30 March 2003, Amnesty International chiefs from around the world delivered an unprecedented statement to Downing Street, urging UK prime minister Tony Blair to abide by international law. ‘The rights and needs of the Iraqi people must be put first in this conflict and its aftermath’, said Amnesty’s secretary general Irene Khan. ‘The UK government and its coalition partners will be judged by the extent to which they do this.’ (1)

On the question of who had the authority to judge whether the rights and needs of the Iraqi people had been put first, Khan continued: ‘Together we represent over 1.6 million Amnesty International members who are watching the conflict in Iraq and are gravely concerned that human rights are not being respected.’

NGOs have not traditionally had such a frontline position in warfare. They have tended to keep their heads down, concentrating on offering the relief that they could rather than expressing strident opinions. Wars are barbaric and confusing – not ideal conditions for respecting the rights and dignity of the human person. Organisations like the Red Cross have often been pretty pragmatic, fitting in between the warring parties as best they could.

In the Second World War, Hitler refused to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) into Nazi concentration camps. The head of the organisation’s information department explained why it chose not to speak out at the time:

‘In the face of such an obstinate refusal which covered up the horrifying reality, about which one was then ill-informed, the ICRC certainly could have made itself heard; it could have protested publicly and called on the conscience of the world. By doing so it would, however, have deprived itself of any possibility of acting in Hitler’s Empire; it would have deliberately given up what chances there still remained to it to help, even in a restricted manner, the victims of the concentration camp regime.’ (2)

By contrast, in the current Iraq conflict NGOs are reprimanding parties for actions that would have been considered par for the course in previous wars. Amnesty International sent out a press release that criticised both sides for using weapons that placed civilians at risk. ‘Both US and UK officials have refused to rule out cluster bombs’, it stated – and called for ‘an immediate moratorium on the use of cluster weapons’ (3). The press release said that Iraqi troops were reportedly laying anti-personnel landmines and landmine booby traps in southern Iraq. ‘The USA and Iraq must immediately halt any deployment of anti-personnel landmines’, the organisation ordered.

The Red Cross, meanwhile, has said that both sides flaunted the Geneva Convention by broadcasting footage and publishing images of POWs (4). Iraq had shown interviews with POWs on Iraqi TV; America and the UK had released footage of Iraqi POWs being captured. The organisation’s legal counsellor for the Middle East decided that it was a violation if prisoners could be identified in images, whatever the context.

And UNICEF issued a statement saying that it was ‘deeply troubled’ about the deteriorating conditions for Iraqi children as a result of the conflict. Executive director of UNICEF Carol Bellamy said: ‘I urge the parties to this conflict to make the safety of children a priority. I urge them to do all in their power to protect children’s lives, their health, and their general wellbeing.’ (5) The organisation singled out the lack of water in the city of Basra, and reports of deaths and injuries among children and women, as two particular issues of concern.

Amnesty International has gone so far as to suggest that the USA might be guilty of war crimes. After the bombing of the Iraqi TV station, Claudio Cordone, senior director for international law at Amnesty International, said: ‘The bombing of a television station simply because it is being used for the purposes of propaganda is unacceptable. It is a civilian object, and thus protected under international humanitarian law.’ (6) She continued: ‘Attacking a civilian object and carrying out a disproportionate attack are war crimes. The onus is on the coalition forces to demonstrate the military use of the TV station and, if that is indeed the case, to show that the attack took into account the risk to civilian lives.’

And after reports that 15 Iraqi civilians had been killed after missiles hit a residential area, Amnesty International called for a full investigation. ‘Any credible allegation of a serious violation of the Geneva Convention must be fully investigated and those found responsible individually held to account’, Amnesty International stated. ‘Urgent measures must be taken to avoid civilian deaths and casualties.’ (7)

Even the way the war has been reported has come under scrutiny. A representative from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) condemned TV coverage of the conflict as ‘war entertainment’, which could set a bad precedent for future conflicts (8).

NGOs’ authority to judge the legitimacy of landmines, filming POWs or bombing TV stations is rarely challenged.

Yet what represents a transgression of the rules of warfare is open to question. Interpretation of the text of international law is a fairly arbitrary matter. Exactly what, for example, counts as exposing prisoners of war to ‘public curiosity’ or ‘humiliation’? And more to the point, who decides? Like the Catholic Church with its Bible, NGOs are attempting to interpose between Geneva Convention and ordinary mortals, presenting themselves as the only genuine interpreters of humanitarian law. In Amnesty International’s terms, warring parties’ ‘interpretations of relevant law…sometimes fall short of what AI is demanding’. Which raises the question: who appoints these judges of humanitarian law?

Whatever your views on the rights and wrong of this war, the increasing authority of NGOs in deciding the course of the conflict should be cause for concern. Unlike state actors, NGOs are accountable to nobody; they are not elected, and have no democratic basis. Even a dictatorship like Iraq is more accountable than the Red Cross – on some level at least, Saddam Hussein has to justify his rule and engage the population, whereas stateless, non-governmental actors have a free hand to go and do as they please.

The rise of NGOs as advocates of the war serves to remove important questions from popular debate. Whether the war is legitimate or not should be a political question, decided in open discussion among people and governments, rather than a legal question to be decided by the NGO elite.

NGOs, however, did not climb to this position of judge and jury of warfare unbidden. This situation has been created by the Western culture of ‘humanitarian intervention’ that has arisen since the end of the 1991 Gulf War. The West has justified its interventions on the basis of selfless goals such as humanitarianism and human rights, which helped to undermine the open exercise of national interest on the international stage. Unintentionally, states such as America and Britain were ceding their authority explicitly to wage war in their own name, giving the green light to organisations purporting to speak on behalf of the ‘international community’.

The result of this can be seen in the current conflict in Iraq. The American-led coalition poses its battle as a disinterested fight for the ‘liberation’ of the Iraqi people – it claims that it is not fighting for its own national interests, but for the interests of others. This invites those who are seen as truly disinterested actors, the NGOs, to give their opinion about how well they think it is doing.

And by invoking humanitarian law to justify its position, the coalition is in effect asking to be judged by the same methods. NGOs had made no comment about the coalition’s filming of Iraqi prisoners of war until US and UK authorities accused the Iraqis of breaking the Geneva Convention for showing interviews with US prisoners. UK prime minister Tony Blair seized upon the affair as an example of why Saddam needed to be removed, and US officials argued that he should be investigated for war crimes. These comments served to open up the floodgates to criticisms and scrutiny of the coalition’s treatment of Iraqi POWs.

In effect, NGOs are parasitic on the weaknesses of the governments of nation states, rather than rising through their own strengths or efforts. That Amnesty International feels it has the authority to tell the UK prime minister how to run the war reflects the erosion of the authority of the UK government, which leaves a vacuum into which non-state actors expand.

This is a dangerous trend. The debate about the legitimacy of the war should be returned to people and their governments. It is too important a matter to be left to NGOs and their legal advisers.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Amnesty seeks rights pledge from Blair, BBC News, 30 March 2003

(2) See How the Red Cross Failed Americans in World War II, Jewish Virtual Library

(3) Amnesty International Press Release, 27 March 2003

(4) ‘Red Cross says both sides flouted Geneva rules’, Financial Times, 24 March 2003

(5) UNICEF ‘deeply troubled’ over deteriorating conditions for Iraqi children, 25 March

(6) Iraq: Fear of war crimes by both sides, 26 March 2003

(7) Amnesty International Press Release, 26 March 2003

(8) Financial Times, 31 March

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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