What is the Moral Worth of Neutrality?

David Bosco has an article in Foreign Policy Passport:

A couple of years ago, the charity Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) pulled its workers out of Afghanistan. The unsolved murder of several staff members was the ostensible trigger for the withdrawal, but MSF made clear that it was uneasy about the blurred lines between humanitarian and military operations in the country (something I wrote about during a reporting trip to Afghanistan.) I’ve always been skeptical of the claim that NGOs can somehow preserve their neutrality in what is in many ways a fight about basic values. After all, working with, educating, or recognizing the equality of women is enough to make you an enemy in the eyes of many Islamic extremists. The Sunday Telegraph ran a chilling piece on Pakistan this weekend which made the point neatly. It describes the Talibanization of parts of that country:

A decree issued last week by Mufti Khalid Shah, a religious leader, said: “All these NGOs are working on the agenda of Zionists; it is a duty of every Muslim to destroy their offices, attack their vehicles and to kill its members.”

I don’t know exactly what “neutrality” in this kind of environment would mean, but I’m pretty sure we don’t want any part of it.

First, I would argue that the “unsolved murder of several staff members” is a sufficient spur to drive a NGO out of a hostile country that is getting more, not less, hostile. A desire to avoid entanglement with U.S. national interests is not necessary.

Second, Bosco is certainly right that “neutrality” is not anything that anyone should want in a situation like this. I would argue that neutrality is of no worth in almost any circumstances.

neutral /ˈnutrəl, ˈnyu-/ [noo-truhl, nyoo-] –adjective

  1. not taking part or giving assistance in a dispute or war between others: a neutral nation during World War II.
  2. not aligned with or supporting any side or position in a controversy: The arbitrator was absolutely neutral.
  3. of or belonging to a neutral state or party: neutral territory.
  4. of no particular kind, characteristics, etc.; indefinite: a neutral personality that made no impression whatever; a sex-neutral job title.

What about neutrality in the resolution of disputes? You might think a Solomonic neutrality would be useful in a judge, but even Solomon was not neutral. Let us review a Wise Ruling.

1 Kings 3:16-28
New International Version (NIV)

A Wise Ruling
16 Now two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 One of them said, “My lord, this woman and I live in the same house. I had a baby while she was there with me. 18 The third day after my child was born, this woman also had a baby. We were alone; there was no one in the house but the two of us.
19 “During the night this woman’s son died because she lay on him. 20 So she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I your servant was asleep. She put him by her breast and put her dead son by my breast. 21 The next morning, I got up to nurse my son—and he was dead! But when I looked at him closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn’t the son I had borne.”

22 The other woman said, “No! The living one is my son; the dead one is yours.”
But the first one insisted, “No! The dead one is yours; the living one is mine.” And so they argued before the king.

23 The king said, “This one says, ‘My son is alive and your son is dead,’ while that one says, ‘No! Your son is dead and mine is alive.’ ”

24 Then the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So they brought a sword for the king. 25 He then gave an order: “Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.”

26 The woman whose son was alive was filled with compassion for her son and said to the king, “Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don’t kill him!”
But the other said, “Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!”

27 Then the king gave his ruling: “Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother.”

28 When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.

A truly neutral adjuticator might propose sharing the infant on alternate days, or even splitting the child in two. After all, any other solution would require siding with one party or the other in the end, and that is something that neutrals cannot do. Solomon was not neutral in that story. He proposed splitting the infant in half not as a true “neutral” division but as a way to charge the situation and convince the harlots to reveal the truth.

The neutral state of Switzerland takes no side in national disputes. And yet it is not a pacificistic land, unwilling to take a stand. It is a small country whose power was established by mercenaries and soldiers, the famous Swiss pikemen who were proof against any body of cavalry. The gnomes of Geneva are among the world’s most trusted and powerful bankers. The Swiss Guard protects the Vatican and the Pope himself. Finally, every able-bodied Swiss man must serve in the militia. Switzerland does not pair neutrality with weakness, but with strength. And this, along with its extremely difficult terrain, is what allows it to be neutral.

What about neutrality for peaceful NGOs like Doctors Without Borders? The group states on its website:

It is part of MSF’s work to address any violations of basic human rights encountered by field teams, violations perpetrated or sustained by political actors. It does so by confronting the responsible actors themselves, by putting pressure on them through mobilisation of the international community and by issuing information publicly. In order to prevent compromise or manipulation of MSF’s relief activities, MSF maintains neutrality and independance from individual governments. (source)

MSF makes it clear that it is not neutral. It is anti-government in the case of any government that could be guilty of oppressing anyone. This is every government. Every government imprisons bad men. And prison is nothing if not oppressive. Additionally, any army at war must oppress the enemy in order to win, and every government has an army that is ready to be used for war. MSF has a funny definition of neutrality, claiming neutrality between warring armies, while opposing those governments that let themself be pressured.

The Mufti’s statement of pure hostile intent makes it apparent that a man cannot remain neutral when someone else intends to murder him out of pure malice. Well, perhaps it is possible to remain neutral, but it sharply limits the number of future decisions he will be able to make, for they end when his throat is cut. Neutrality doesn’t have a future. Some day we will all have to make a choice. If NGOs do not stand for something, then what is their purpose? What will they chose when it comes time to choose between civilization and barbarism?

That choice is coming.

Mufti Khalid Shah is just one voice of many in the forces of barbarism. What will MSF and the other NGOs answer when he calls?

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