Images of the Australian Defence Force delivering aid to Pakistan this week dominate the Australian government’s aid agency website. The news heralds the arrival of mixed military and civilian medical teams to flood-devastated areas.

In Britain, the Department for International Development and the military have been working closely to overcome the massive logistical challenges. It makes all sense at one level, but ignores principles of aid neutrality that have been learned through painful experience.

In April 2003, I joined the so-called second invasion into Iraq: the influx of aid workers after the downfall of Saddam Hussein. Eight months later I joined the exodus fleeing the country, as one aid agency after another was targeted through bombings, kidnappings and murders. The Iraq crisis was an early instance of aid subsumed to political objectives.

Differences between the Iraq and Pakistan emergencies are obvious: a natural disaster rather than a man-made one; a close ally rather than a pariah state isolated by sanctions; a country with a government rather than a country without one. Yet insurgent elements are trying to destabilise the Pakistani government and there are signs of a ‘heart and minds’ battle starting between ‘legitimate’ aid providers and identified terrorist organisations. If this soft war escalates, parallels with Iraq may not seem so distant.

It seems unbelievable now, but when we first travelled to Baghdad, the danger was unimaginable. Aid agencies did understand that the situation was not stable, and we lived under strict security conditions, rarely travelling beyond our accommodation or office. But the world, including Iraq, had no idea of the precise nature of the trouble about to unfold.

The United Nations was the first to make headlines, in August 2003, with the suicide truck bomb that killed UN representative Sergio De Mello, and 21 others. ‘This was never an Iraqi,’ one of my Iraqi colleagues said. ‘No Iraqi would do this.’

Unfortunately, if she was not wrong then, she has been wrong countless times since. he Red Cross, World Vision, CARE were among many that were attacked and suffered tragic casualties amongst both local and foreign staff.

The agency where I had worked experienced this painfully with the murder of its country director, Margaret Hassan. Tiny in stature, gigantic in presence, Margaret was a hero to me and many who worked with her. She had worked in Iraq throughout sanctions, having become Iraqi when she married and moved to Baghdad decades earlier.

In the months following her disappearance, there were repeated calls for her safe return. One rally was dominated by people pushing themselves onto the Baghdad streets in wheelchairs Margaret’s work had helped to provide. But her captors had no regard for her beliefs. Their interest was only in the message her death would deliver.

Pakistan is not Iraq, and it is right to chafe at glib parallels. But it is also true that security in Pakistan is precarious. The obvious identification of aid with the militaries of western allies such as Britain and Australia sends a message so blatant as to be almost provocative to ‘rogue elements’, who may yet respond through indiscriminate violence. Despite this, there has been no discussion of the militarisation of Australia’s aid efforts.

‘Aid neutrality’ has been a fundamental concept in humanitarianism since about 1864, when the International Committee of the Red Cross was established. Humanitarian actors have fought since to maintain a clear and visible distinction between military, government and humanitarian actors so that aid can always be extended to any person, regardless of politics, religion or culture. Recently it has been recognised that the lines between humanitarian actors and the military have become irretrievably blurred. Consequently, the risks to humanitarian personnel have increased, and so have the difficulties in delivering assistance to communities without putting them at risk. In Iraq it proved impossible to provide security for aid workers and the majority withdrew.

Perhaps the notion of maintaining distinctions between humanitarian and other actors has become redundant in a world where terrorists don’t stop to read declarations of neutrality and every act of aid is identified as political. Perhaps there are those who feel that the risk of violence has simply become part of the job, and that the best approach is to get as much into the hands of the needy as possible, while it’s possible.

But before we loudly celebrate the arrival of a joint civil-military team of medics in Pakistan, shouldn’t we at least question the consequences of promoting this so brightly? The close-held principles of aid neutrality should not be so dismissively cast aside in the rush to score points for Australian-labelled civil-military aid.

Grace has over 10 years working overseas in aid delivery in Asia and the Middle East for aid agencies and the UN. Grace is currently International Project Manager for ActionAid Australia.

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