Aid organisations must speak out when sleeping children are killed in air strikes

The silence from NGOs in Afghanistan makes me question if humanitarianism has become just a market-driven industry

When I was covering the bloody conflict in Afghanistan as a journalist, the most credible first-hand knowledge on the ground often came from the local frontline humanitarian workers, but I seldom saw their powerful organisations call a spade a spade about what the warring factions dubbed “collateral damage”.

That made me question the whole humanitarian world. Is it comprised of silent rescue and relief entities with no interest or responsibility for holding the perpetrators accountable for the many heinous crimes?

After all, they often have the undeniable evidence and moral upper hand of neutrality to expose truth in the otherwise murky settings of war, where the propaganda leads to confusion and false interpretations, potentially resulting in more conflicts.

Having high regard for the wonderful work the UN, the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) and all other humanitarian organisations have been doing in Afghanistan after it has been largely abandoned by the international community on the heels of the Taliban takeover, I was confronted with this question again when I read a statement by Unicef on a deadly air raid by Pakistan which killed scores of civilians, mostly sleeping children, in Afghanistan’s Khost and Kunar provinces recently.

Unicef’s representative in Afghanistan confirmed in a series of tweets that a total of 20 children were killed during the airstrikes in the early hours of 16 April without once naming the obvious perpetrator.

This was an incident where an organisation could have condemned the perpetrator as the de facto authority in Afghanistan, the Taliban, confirmed it as a Pakistani air strike and the Pakistan government owned it as “an incident” in a “counter-terrorism” operation. What kept the UN from speaking on behalf of the 20 children killed while asleep?

The first Geneva convention of 1864 laid the foundations for many of the rules governing the mandate of humanitarian actors. Since then we have seen an array of large institutions emerge, such as the UN, the ICRC and many more. Why haven’t they done more to stop the conflicts and tragedies – and could they have done more at all? Have we gone too far in turning humanitarianism into an industry going about its own “market-driven” norms?

I am very conscious of the vulnerabilities of the local humanitarian workers caught in the conflict. Although I am very disappointed, I don’t blame Unicef Afghanistan either because on an individual level I’m sure they have “procedures” to follow.

However, in my view there has to be recognition of the matter and, if needed, a reaffirmed global consensus on the scope and mandate of humanitarianism beyond charity and silent assistance. Speaking up on behalf of the oppressed and persecuted must not be left to some organisation such as Médecins Sans Frontières or Amnesty International, but made an integral part of the whole humanitarian world so no individual or entity is singled out and nobody suffers silently. MSF stood out for its courageous stance in the wake of a deadly US air strike on their health centre in northern Kunduz province. It left no ambiguity about the perpetrator and spoke openly for justice and humanity.

Has our collective consciousness reduced to the level where humanitarianism is largely confined to distributing goods branded with the logos of the organisations for a photoshoot, and then taking the images of the vulnerable communities’ miseries to boardroom meetings and international conferences in luxury hotels for raising funds? Would it be too cynical to wonder whether the cycle of humanitarian operations now seems less to revolve around its core principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence, and more about money and politics?

I understand that any humanitarian institution exposing brutalities in conflict zones is often the first to be kicked out and thus depriving the vulnerable population of the first-hand rescue and relief they were providing. Still, I believe we all need to put our hearts and minds to work and reclaim true humanitarianism from becoming too industrialised.

 Shadi Khan Saif is an Afghan journalist based in Melbourne.
Aid organisations must speak out when sleeping children are killed in air strikes