The Humanitarian Temptation

The Humanitarian Temptation

In 2000, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan posed a question to the Millennium Summit of the UN: “If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how s


In 2000, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan posed a question to the Millennium Summit of the UN: “If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica–to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?”

In fact, many people are quite surprised to discover that until quite recently it was unequivocally “against” international law to intervene in another state’s affairs, no matter how brutally its rulers abused its subjects. The old concept of state sovereignty was enshrined in the UN Charter, which, despite its opening invocation of “We the peoples of the United Nations,” was actually a mutual insurance pact among states, which left their peoples at their mercy.

George W. Bush’s September 12 speech to the United Nations manifested both the seductions and the dangers of “humanitarian intervention.” Carefully researched for its audience impact, it invoked the plight of the Iraqi people to justify enforced regime change, knowing that there was a growing constituency, nationally and internationally, for such a notion. However, the record of his own Administration and its predecessors betrays at best a very limited interest in the welfare of any of the Iraqi people.

It is precisely such expedient invocations of humanitarianism that breed genuine worry across the world, and not just from the guys protecting their sovereign rights to massacre or imprison Chechens, Uighurs or whomever. Indeed, when the issue of using military force to protect the Kurds in Iraq first arose in 1991, lawyers at the UN told me the only existing precedent for “humanitarian intervention” was Hitler’s invocation of the plight of the Sudeten Germans against Czechoslovakia. Unsurprisingly, none of the states that provided air cover for the Kurds cited that precedent.

However, the move to protect the Kurds (at least from the Iraqis–no one stopped the Turks even when they raided the protected zone later) revived what is still a far from generally accepted concept in international law. When, later in the 1990s, humanitarian reasons were cited for interventions in Haiti and Kosovo, the more acceptable and solid legal cause of threats to international peace and security was always thrown in. In Haiti, of course, that was a bit of a stretch. Haitian boat people landing on the beaches of a swing state like Florida does not quite fill the bill–unless it is the President of the United States making the argument. But outside Washington, the Haitian military had few fans, so there was little opposition to intervention.

The application of this interventionist rationale may be new, but the principle itself has been around for much longer. In the 1940s the UN took up the issue of apartheid in South Africa, and the international conventions against apartheid and genocide both chipped away at the notion of absolute sovereignty. Since the UN passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, followed shortly afterward by the Geneva Conventions, it could be argued that states have made binding promises to observe the rules and should be held to account for not doing so.

So why is it that so many on the left take an absolutist, “anti-Samaritan” view and regard any intervention, at least by the West, as an example of imperialism? One cannot help thinking that the Good Samaritan would be denounced as a liberal cover for Roman imperialism if he stopped to help today.

To oppose humanitarian intervention as a principle is a little like opposing abortion regardless of the circumstances, without knowing the particulars of the case. On the other hand, to support its occasional use under carefully defined circumstances, as most of its advocates do, is not the same as advocating its indiscriminate practice. Even those who claim to oppose intervention across the board can in their own way be as expedient as Bush. For example, many who supported international action to overthrow the apartheid regime in South Africa opposed action to stop Slobodan Milosevic practicing a proportionately more lethal form of it against the Kosovars.

David Rieff’s book, A Bed for the Night, reflects the complexity of the issues. The real world is indeed messy, and the attempt to deduce a line from it can lead to serious intellectual entanglement, which is what seems to have happened with Rieff. His points and premises often have a weight derived from actual experience. It is his conclusions that are confusing, since he is trying to abstract an argumentative line that his own statements do not really support.

Rieff’s flamboyant prose has often effectively flayed the bureaucratic banality of the international community’s responses to the horrors of the past decade. In Rwanda and Bosnia, he saw people who died because they assumed that the blue flags of the UN had the full faith and credit of the international community behind them. Rieff clearly cares–but gives the impression that he thinks most other people don’t, and if they do, he doubts their motives. The main targets of his polemics are not the governments of the world, for whom he certainly expresses enough ire, but the NGOs and international agencies such as Human Rights Watch, Médecins Sans Frontières and Oxfam, “the humanitarians,” to whom he offers simultaneous admiration and contempt.

His target is an accidental conglomeration of thousands of organizations and individuals of myriad purposes and motives, whom he has elevated to a corporate body and ideology–for the purpose of attacking them for backsliding from principles that most of them never had.

Regarding them as the “last of the just,” he allows the aid workers the right as individuals to call for government intervention and to concern themselves with human rights and other political issues. However, he believes they have abandoned their ideals as organizations and “turned to what they call advocacy–that is, lobbying governments, lobbying governments and the UN for funds, but also for political commitments, and, as the [1990s] progressed, military action.”

He asks, “Can an ideal based on both universal values and unbending neutrality be politicized successfully? The price for such a transformation would seem to be very high–perhaps too high.” In contrast, it seems to many humanitarians that those universal values preclude neutrality in the face of evildoing and injustice, and just like Rieff, faced with “neutrality” in Rwanda and Bosnia, they felt that evil should be confronted.

Rieff’s own experience shows eloquently just how neutrality operates as a humanitarian principle in practice. Some neutral humanitarians handed over a significant percentage of relief supplies for besieged Sarajevans to the very ones who were besieging and shelling the city. The refugees whom international agencies fed after they fled Rwanda in 1994 included, and indeed were pretty much ruled by, the very murderers who had just committed genocide back home. They were indeed victims, as they starved and died–but they were not innocent. Hence, Rieff suggests, the humanitarian predilection to show starving children to raise support, rather than the more ineffective but equally honest pictures of well-fed militiamen.

Rieff reserves particular scorn for Michael Ignatieff, whom he berates with like-minded “humanitarians,” because, he alleges, “too often, they choose to ignore any bad news that goes against their repeated assertion that the ‘revolution of moral concern’ is well under way.” Scoring them for their misguided faith in the growing body of human rights norms, he claims that there is a “question that desperately needs to be asked, what this has actually accomplished for people in need of justice, or aid, or mercy, or bread, and whether it has actually kept a single jackboot out of a single human face.” For that to occur, he argues, “a UN that can enforce its resolutions, or some other form of global governance–really has to take shape. And I see no prospect of that whatsoever.”

Ignatieff, in contrast, takes a measured view. He sees human rights “as a residual system of entitlement that people have irrespective of citizenship, irrespective of the states in which they happen to find themselves.” Of course, there are those on the left who will lead a picket line for the right to gay or lesbian marriage in the United States and then go on to a demonstration in support of a foreign regime’s right to murder its citizens unhindered by outside interference. Ignatieff counters such multiple standards by claiming: “A rights culture is not relativistic: murder, violence, theft, betrayal and lying are recognizably the same in any culture or historical epoch.”

The “rights revolution” of Ignatieff’s title is not about freezing norms in stone. He knows that rights can contradict each other, but the fact that they are rights means that there must be mediation and negotiation over their relative weights. The rights revolution “has been about both enhancing our right to be equal and protecting our right to be different.” Ignatieff notes approvingly that

with each passing year, we get closer to a new dispensation in which the sovereign rights of states are conditional upon there being adequate protections for the basic human rights of citizens. Where states consistently abuse human rights, where all peaceful remedies have been exhausted, the UN may authorize intervention from sanctions all the way up to a full scale military campaign.

However, like most people who consider humanitarian intervention, he is pragmatically careful to note that there are conditions. “Victims are victims only if they say they are. The corollary is also true: we’re mandated to intervene on their behalf only if other peoples and cultures ask for help.”

In short, Ignatieff is not the idealistic caricature that Rieff makes him out to be. Progress for him is incremental and forever imperfect, but it exists. There are indeed fewer jackboots, and there may well be even fewer in the future.

In contrast, Rieff comes across as a disillusioned idealist whose worldly-wise pessimism is a defense against the inevitable imperfections of humanity. He wants governments to intervene but does not believe in the “international community,” which “is a myth and a way to conceal the bad news about the present in septic sheets of piety about the future.”

In a typical polemicist’s outburst of synecdoche, Rieff berates the whole of the “last of the just” for their victim culture, of thinking that “victims are always innocent, always deserving of the world’s sympathy, its moral concern, and beyond that, its protection, even if that means killing in the name of protection.” Rieff himself agrees that the provision of “neutral” humanitarian aid by the UN and the West in Bosnia was a fig leaf to cover their reluctance to take the military action against Belgrade that would have averted the disaster and mass deaths at an early stage. But he deplores the agencies themselves for pointing it out and for lobbying governments to act.

He cautions, “Victims can be victims and not be innocent.” Tortuously, he connects this process to the abuse of children by the relief agencies like Oxfam, at least in their publicity, which has him fulminating at what he sees as their dishonesty. It should be no surprise that it is easier to raise money for starving children than for hungry machete-murderers fleeing Rwanda, but Rieff leaves the reader puzzled. Is he angry because this is sharp practice by the charities concerned? Or is it because such images can help move the (inevitably unscrupulous) governments to send troops to “help”? Rieff condemns them for their simplicity: “By calling some terrible historical event a humanitarian crisis, it is almost inevitable that all the fundamental questions of politics, of culture, history and morality without which the crisis can never be properly understood will be avoided.”

But if they do see the historical depth, and demand appropriate political and military action, they are equally condemned in his eyes as “state humanitarians,” appealing to the “hubristic sentimentality of the West.”

Taken whole, this is a strange, self-fulfilling pessimism. Actually, by the end of Rieff’s book, I thought that straw horses should have rights as well. I never saw so many innocent ones have the stuffing knocked out of them in one book.

In a strange twist, Rieff accuses Kofi Annan of “the gravest mystification” for praising the “‘developing international norm in favor of intervention to protect civilians from wholesale slaughter’ without emphasizing the horror of what such an intervention will involve, assuming it is justified.” Rieff’s demand that others share his pessimism or be damned is quite disquieting.

Churchill said, “We shall fight them on the beaches.” I have never heard him blamed for not saying, “We will be blinded and disemboweled on the beaches, the people in our pillboxes will be burned alive, our fighter pilots will fall several miles and hit the ground at high speeds.” But the injunction to despair is compounded: Rieff charges that people like Annan and Bernard Kouchner (former head of the UN interim administration in Kosovo) “were hardly blind to the harsh experiences of the post-Cold War era, and yet the lessons they drew from them was one of hope rather than despair.”

Rieff instead avers that in the twentieth century the world “remained the slaughterhouse it had been since Neolithic times.” Again, pessimism gets the better of him. The end of the twentieth century was appalling–but in view of the improvement of weaponry since stone axes, a real cynic would marvel that so many people remain unkilled. Since 1945, no city has been nuked, and the pressure of domestic and international opinion has had an effect. Even in Afghanistan, we have advanced to the point where Vietnam-style bombing was unthinkable. And perhaps the best example is Western Europe, at peace for over half a century, which Rieff mentions only to dismiss it as a special case, because of the cession of power by its nation-states to the EU, and to marvel at it. But if a multinational community on such a scale can work, whence comes his gloom about the prospects of a wider or global one?

Even when he is right, Rieff eats his own words shortly afterward. He criticizes British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government for intervening in Kosovo but not in the equally deserving cases of Sri Lanka or Angola. However, then he admits that “the reality is that any decision to be consistent would commit the world to war without end–war waged in the name not of politics but of humanitarian need.” He concludes that “humanitarian military intervention is something that can take place only very occasionally,” calling it “a weak prescription for the world’s salvation.”

Yet to my knowledge, no one has argued for the concept as a panacea, not least because of all the factors that Rieff has documented in his invaluable career as a genocide-watcher. If anything, the “supporters” of humanitarian intervention have bruited it as an occasional remedy for particular cases. Perhaps the deepest study was done in 2001 by the international commission sponsored by the Canadian government to answer the question raised by Annan in his Millennium Summit address: How are we to respond to atrocity? Carefully and pragmatically it considered the circumstances under which such intervention could be considered. Its checklist included the motives of the states involved, insuring that it was a last resort, that there were reasonable prospects of securing its ends and that the duration and scale of the operation were the minimum necessary. And, of course, that the best legitimizing body for such operations, despite all its flaws, is the UN Security Council.

It is an interesting and well-reasoned document, in the pragmatic mode that Ignatieff espouses. It is well worth applying this checklist to George W. Bush’s present plans and UN Resolution 1441. If Sweden and South Africa had moved the resolution and had the military wherewithal to overthrow the regime in Baghdad, it would be more palatable. As it is, the world’s only legitimizing body has pinned deputy’s stars on what started as an American lynch mob. Even though their victim is almost certainly guilty as alleged, few will cheer when the posse mounts up and rides off, swinging its newly legalized noose.

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