GENEVA — The humanitarian aid group Oxfam went out on a moral limb recently when it put up a home page on the Internet to take a stand for the protection of Bosnia's Muslims against Serb attacks.
The opinion itself was less striking than that the group delivered it: Humanitarian groups like Oxfam usually cherish political neutrality as a badge of their credibility in gaining access to the world's trouble spots.
But in the complex post-cold-war world, not taking sides can be a dangerous proposition for relief workers on the ground. War and banditry have become inextricably linked, as was the case in Somalia and Haiti. Front lines no longer exist and more often than not, the traditional line between combatants and noncombatants have become clouded.
Now, some humanitarian groups are starting to take a stand to preserve their tradition of neutrality.
''The term humanitarian action has come to have wide meaning,'' says Cornelio Sommaruga, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). ''There is increasing uncertainty and confusion about [our] roles and responsibilities in the international community. Some clarity is needed.''
Code of conduct?
And so for the first time in its 132-year history, the Swiss-based group is asking that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) subscribe to a code of conduct.
''Doctors have universal standards. Engineers have universal standards,'' says Peter Walker, head of disaster and refugees for the Federation of the Red Cross. ''But humanitarian workers don't have professional standards.''
The proposed code mandates that aid be given regardless of race, creed, or nationality. It requires that aid not be used to further a political or religious viewpoint, or as an instrument of government foreign policy.
And while many NGOs support the proposed code, it is clear that the ICRC will never convince everyone. London-based Amnesty International, for example, has built its reputation on openly criticizing governments it finds violating human rights.
Some NGOs seek publicity to prove a point. Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) reportedly launched a publicity campaign in the former Yugoslavia equating Serbian President Slobadan Milosevic with Hitler. ''There were more than 300 various humanitarian organizations involved in this conflict,'' says Nenad Javornik of the Croatian Red Cross. ''But what we saw was that not all of them acted without prejudice.''
If aid groups are to be respected, then this kind of behavior can't be tolerated, says Jean-Daniel Bieler, a Swiss diplomat. Mr. Bieler recalled that during Lebanon's civil war, people offered the Red Cross money, but only if it was used to help Christians. They were turned down.
But some government delegations attending the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent have suggested that the ICRC's credibility has already been undermined.
A Jordanian delegate questioned whether the ICRC had already entered the political fray by asking for war-crimes tribunals and a ban on land-mines.
Even the remarks of Mario Villarroel Lander, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, have raised some eyebrows. In his speech, he called for the group to actively promote humanitarian values. ''Who else but ourselves is in a better position to address the consequences of racism, ethnic strife, and the consequences of UN sanctions,'' he asked.
And messages like this aren't likely to stop soon, says Edward Girardet, director of the Geneva-based International Center for Humanitarian Reporting. NGOs have become big business, an estimated $57 billion a year, and as long as competition for funding exists, there will always be those groups looking for attention.
Aside from the credibility, sometimes those relief workers trying to avoid political involvement still come under fire - literally. For example, American relief worker Fred Cuny was killed in Chechnya this year.
American mission creep
The American military's recent difficulties in helping to distribute aid in Somalia ''has made everybody think,'' says Peter Schoof, a German delegate to the UN. ''To what extent can you and should you enforce humanitarian law? But the question is when do you become a party to the conflict?''
A good question, agree US State Department officials. In Somalia and Haiti, there was what some US diplomats call ''mission creep'' - slow and somewhat uncontrolled shift in the mission's goal. In Somalia, for instance, American soldiers trying to both distribute aid and keep the peace came under fire.
''Soldiers giving humanitarian aid is questionable,'' says a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. ''Obviously if they really see something they have to act, but we'd rather not get into that position.''