The New Humanitarian Order | The Nation


The New Humanitarian Order

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

The New Humanitarian Order

About the Author

Mahmood Mamdani
Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University, was director of the Institute of...

Also by the Author

Three new books examine the distinctions between religious and political Islam.

When World War II broke out, the international order could be divided into two unequal parts: one privileged, the other subjugated; one a system of sovereign states in the Western Hemisphere, the other a colonial system in most of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Postwar decolonization recognized former colonies as states, thereby expanding state sovereignty as a global principle of relations between states. The end of the cold war has led to another basic shift, heralding an international humanitarian order that promises to hold state sovereignty accountable to an international human rights standard. Many believe that we are in the throes of a systemic transition in international relations.

The standard of responsibility is no longer international law; it has shifted, fatefully, from law to rights. As the Bush Administration made patently clear at the time of the invasion of Iraq, humanitarian intervention does not need to abide by the law. Indeed, its defining characteristic is that it is beyond the law. It is this feature that makes humanitarian intervention the twin of the "war on terror."

This new humanitarian order, officially adopted at the UN's 2005 World Summit, claims responsibility for the protection of vulnerable populations. That responsibility is said to belong to "the international community," to be exercised in practice by the UN, and in particular by the Security Council, whose permanent members are the great powers. This new order is sanctioned in a language that departs markedly from the older language of law and citizenship. It describes as "human" the populations to be protected and as "humanitarian" the crisis they suffer from, the intervention that promises to rescue them and the agencies that seek to carry out intervention. Whereas the language of sovereignty is profoundly political, that of humanitarian intervention is profoundly apolitical, and sometimes even antipolitical. Looked at closely and critically, what we are witnessing is not a global but a partial transition. The transition from the old system of sovereignty to a new humanitarian order is confined to those states defined as "failed" or "rogue" states. The result is once again a bifurcated system, whereby state sovereignty obtains in large parts of the world but is suspended in more and more countries in Africa and the Middle East.

The Westphalian coin of state sovereignty is still the effective currency in the international system. It is worth looking at both sides of this coin: sovereignty and citizenship. If "sovereignty" remains the password to enter the passageway of international relations, "citizenship" still confers membership in the sovereign national political (state) community. Sovereignty and citizenship are not opposites; they go together. The state, after all, embodies the key political right of citizens: the right of collective self-determination.

The international humanitarian order, in contrast, does not acknowledge citizenship. Instead, it turns citizens into wards. The language of humanitarian intervention has cut its ties with the language of citizen rights. To the extent the global humanitarian order claims to stand for rights, these are residual rights of the human and not the full range of rights of the citizen. If the rights of the citizen are pointedly political, the rights of the human pertain to sheer survival; they are summed up in one word: protection. The new language refers to its subjects not as bearers of rights--and thus active agents in their emancipation--but as passive beneficiaries of an external "responsibility to protect." Rather than rights-bearing citizens, beneficiaries of the humanitarian order are akin to recipients of charity. Humanitarianism does not claim to reinforce agency, only to sustain bare life. If anything, its tendency is to promote dependence. Humanitarianism heralds a system of trusteeship.

It takes no great intellectual effort to recognize that the responsibility to protect has always been the sovereign's obligation. It is not that a new principle has been introduced; rather, its terms have been radically altered. To grasp this shift, we need to ask: who has the responsibility to protect whom, under what conditions and toward what end?

The era of the international humanitarian order is not entirely new. It draws on the history of modern Western colonialism. At the outset of colonial expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, leading Western powers--Britain, France, Russia--claimed to protect "vulnerable groups." When it came to countries controlled by rival powers, such as the Ottoman Empire, Western powers claimed to protect populations they considered vulnerable, mainly religious minorities like specific Christian denominations and Jews. In lands not yet colonized by any power, like South Asia and large parts of Africa, they highlighted local atrocities--such as female infanticide and suttee in India, and slavery in Africa--and pledged to protect victims from their rulers.

From this history was born the international regime of trusteeship exercised under the League of Nations. The League's trust territories were mainly in Africa and the Middle East. They were created at the end of World War I, when colonies of defeated imperial powers (the Ottoman Empire, Germany and Italy) were handed over to the victorious powers, who pledged to administer them as guardians would administer wards, under the watchful eye of the League of Nations.

One of these trust territories was Rwanda, administered as a trust of Belgium until the 1959 Hutu Revolution. It was under the benevolent eye of the League of Nations that Belgium hardened Hutu and Tutsi into racialized identities, using the force of law to institutionalize an official system of discrimination between them. Thereby, Belgian colonialism laid the institutional groundwork for the genocide that followed half a century later. The Western powers that constituted the League of Nations could not hold Belgium accountable for the way it exercised an international trust, for one simple reason: to do so would have been to hold a mirror up to their own colonial record. Belgian rule in Rwanda was but a harder version of the indirect rule practiced to one degree or another by all Western powers in Africa. This system did not simply deny sovereignty to its colonies; it redesigned the administrative and political life of colonies by bringing each under a regime of group identity and rights. Belgian rule in Rwanda may have been an extreme version of colonialism, but it certainly was not exceptional.

Given the record of the League of Nations, it is worth asking how the new international regime of trusteeship would differ from the old one. What are the likely implications of the absence of citizenship rights at the core of this new system? Why would a regime of trusteeship not degenerate yet again into one of lack of accountability and responsibility?

On the face of it, these two systems--one defined by sovereignty and citizenship, the other by trusteeship and wardship--would seem to be contradictory rather than complementary. In practice, however, they are two parts of a bifurcated international system. One may ask how this bifurcated order is reproduced without the contradiction being flagrantly obvious, without it appearing like a contemporary version of the old colonial system of trusteeship. A part of the explanation lies in how power has managed to subvert the language of violence and war to serve its own claims.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.