Sunday, May 31, 2009

Independence versus Neutrality

When I was a child, my Father played a game with me.

He would ask me, “If I’ve committed a crime and you’re the presiding Judge, would you hand out a guilty verdict?”

I would answer “Yes” without even taking the time to ask him what sort of crime and what was the reason. I thought if a person had committed a crime, he/she should be judged as guilty and deserved to go to jail.

In my childish mind, I didn’t consider whether there would be any mitigating factors which would influence my judgment.

But I’m your Father! You won’t even use your position to take my side?” My Father persisted.

"Nope.” I stood firm with my answer.

He would continue to ask me the same question over the years and I would always give him the same answer. 

One day he stopped asking and I can’t remember when or why. I don’t know what I would have answered him if he asks me again one day. I’ve never even asked him why he had asked me those question.

Was he merely testing my loyalty? Or was he testing my neutrality, independence or impartiality?

A few weeks ago, the Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) launched a huge fund-raising event in conjunction with World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. It managed to collect more than USD4 million. It comes as no surprise because the President of CRC is an influential person and hence was able to use her status  to garner support from many.

It’s not a secret either that the President is the wife of the Prime Minister of Cambodia.

During the World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day; amidst thousands of people, including members of the press and other high profile representatives from international aid organizations, the Prime Minister handed over the amount of fund collected to the President of the CRC.

This gesture, what would be considered as merely protocol (as a respect to the Prime Minister) by many Cambodians, was highly criticized by certain international community. The close connection between the President of CRC and the Prime Minister has always been a point of contention for those who understand the concept of independence within the Movement but it was easier to overlook such flaw when both personalities were careful to keep a distance from each other in public.

All recognized national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies must subscribe to the seven fundamental principles (humanity, universality, unity, independence, neutrality, impartiality and voluntary service) of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. While playing an auxiliary role to the State, they are expected to maintain independence at all time.

In many countries, including developed ones, many governments are known to provide funds to their national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies and this is not against the Movement’s constitution. However, it’s imperative that they maintain independence by staying away from government influence when making decisions and executing their duties and responsibilities.

I think the CRC’s independence is further questioned for two strong reasons; the intimate relationship between the two main personalities and the lack of faith in the Prime Minister’s administration. Cambodia’s poor human rights record, weak rule of law and challenge to democracy have reduced the Prime Minister’s credibility.

The fact that the CRC’s President is so closely linked to the Prime Minister has caused discomfort to those who have vested interest in the Movement. To be fair, the CRC’s President tries hard to exclude the participation of the Prime Minister in many CRC events just to avoid such criticism. But is that enough?

My Father’s little game would not have happened in real life. My close relation with him would have automatically rendered me ineligible for precisely the same reason. Justice must not only be done but also seen to be done. I could be as impartial as possible but it wouldn’t have made any difference to the public’s eyes.

However, in the case of the CRC, I think it’s important to consider the “mitigating” factors before making any judgment.

First of all, it’s not a judiciary but a humanitarian institution. It’s main duty is to provide humanitarian aid for those in need. When facing a dilemma such as this (particularly when it’s difficult to change or challenge a sovereign institution so entrenched in its tradition and culture),  it’s always helpful to go back to the main foundation and objectives of the institution.

In this case, it’s clear that at the end of the day, the Movement’s duties lie in the interest of the people. The international community needs to weigh the costs and benefits before making a judgment in condemning the institution’s independence which can harm its relationship and hence jeopardize its core mandate.

I read a commentary made by Jean Pictet, former Director-General of the ICRC, on the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross. He wrote:

“It is clear indeed that the Red Cross Society in a country under an authoritarian regime cannot serve as a centre for opposition to the regime or to any party or faith. It can thus display an attitude of benevolent neutrality towards temporal or spiritual authorities, maintain good relations with them and co-operate with them in humanitarian activities, since the National Societies are called upon to serve as auxiliaries to governmental institutions.”

Neutrality also is the attitude observed by the ICRC in its relations with governmental entities, treating them on the basis of equality, not expressing itself on their legitimacy, not considering whether they are recognized, not judging their politics. If it acts in this way, it does so not in order to waste its energies in idle diplomatic procedures but so as to gain access to victims in need of help, and these victims are in the power of the States. It is therefore necessary to obtain the required authorization from States and to maintain the relations of confidence essential for continuing co-operation.”

While it is fair for the Red Cross Movement to judge an institution’s independence, it is equally fair for them to ask themselves where they stand in terms of neutrality.

In humanitarian field, neutrality is perhaps the most important of all principles because at the end of the day, those who seek to benefit from humanitarian aid should not be judged by their religion, race, political affiliation, etc. This also means that they should not be deprived from aid simply because their government or national Red Cross/Red Crescent society has failed to satisfy the Movement’s criteria of independence.

What could ultimately be a problem is when funds collected are not being channelled towards its people. Such allegation will however need strong evidence before any judgment can be made.

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