Humanitarianism in Crisis

Author: David Rieff
November/December 2002


The humanitarian world emerged from the 1990s both saddened and chastened. Again and again nonprofit and UN personnel had been overwhelmed by the magnitude of particular crises -- as when 2 million people crossed from Rwanda into Zaire in 1994, or when 800,000 Kosovar Albanians were forcibly deported from the province by Serb forces in the spring of 1999. Even more unnerving was the sense that, often despite the relief groups' own best efforts, the moral dilemmas attendant on their actions had only grown more acute over the course of the decade. Even so, humanitarians did not give up. Non-governmental organizations (NGOS) and UN agencies multiplied their efforts to refine their operations in light of the lessons of Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Still, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, experienced relief workers had come to accept the new conventional wisdom that there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.

From this simple truth, however, diametrically opposing conclusions can be drawn about what humanitarian action should involve. Many persistent advocates of humanitarianism, including UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, see it as one of a number of "pillars" supporting a promising new liberal world order. Such an order, they seem to believe, can be constructed to fill the vacuum created by globalization's undermining of the idea of state sovereignty. It will also be built on the increasing incorporation of key human rights principles into international laws and treaties. As the authors of the December 2001 report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty on "The Responsibility to Protect" put it, "What has gradually been emerging [since 1945] is a parallel transition from a culture of sovereign impunity to a culture of national and international accountability." In other words, individuals have rights that neither their communities nor their governments can abrogate.

It is unclear, however, whether humanitarianism is the appropriate instrument to further these objectives. Many NGOS, particularly those influenced by the British and American aid traditions, assume that relief groups could play a useful role if they could only increase their human rights-enforcing and peace-building capacities. Dissenting figures, notably in French humanitarian circles, argue that humanitarianism needs to remain a world apart, no matter how worthy the larger goals of advancing human rights, resolving conflict, and fostering development. Thus many of the most influential figures from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and other like-minded agencies insist that such projects take humanitarianism beyond the role for which it is suited.

To people outside the humanitarian world, this latter stance seems both mystifying and utterly counterintuitive. Why not shed relief workers' traditional impartiality and neutrality if that would address and help overcome the limitations and shortcomings so tragically revealed in the major humanitarian operations of the 1990s?

After all, over the course of that decade, a majority of aid workers came to share a belief in the need for more comprehensive answers to the world's problems -- ones in which humanitarianism would play only a part. Even those who felt that humanitarian action and the promotion of human rights were distinct and in some ways irreconcilable imperatives shared the Western public's sense that doing things the old way was no longer enough. Most felt that the realities of the field and the new agendas of donor governments had made such a transformation inescapable. States were involved both as actors in humanitarian operations and as funders of them. Aid had political consequences and therefore could not be restricted to immediate relief work. And grave human rights abuses, not to mention genocide, could not be remedied by humanitarian action alone.

By 2001, most people within the humanitarian movement were united in the conviction that aid had to become more political and break free of its original neutral principles if it was to become effective and morally coherent. The ideological shift to a humanitarianism grounded in human rights was facilitated by the increasing role of logisticians, many of whom had formerly served in similar capacities in NATO armies. It was not that these ex-soldiers had a special commitment to human rights or refugee protection. But their presence in effect meant that NGOS were being "militarized" from within, as the ex-soldiers played an increasingly essential role in the field. This helped make cooperation with Western armies seem normal for NGOS, whereas such collaboration would have appeared both culturally and politically alien a generation earlier.


The insights and practices of the human rights movement, and the placing of humanitarianism within the context of international humanitarian law, seemed to offer the humanitarian movement a moral revalidation. As Jean-Francois Vidal of the Action Contre la Faim put it, the problem with the traditional idea of humanitarianism is that it demands access for [NGO] workers to reach victims who then become the object of "our" compassion. What I support is the victims' access to their rights -- that is, a construction that makes them subjects, not objects.

This question of not just access but what the demand for humanitarian access implies for both relief workers and the people they were trying to assist was crucial. By the mid-1990s, humanitarian aid workers did not need outside critics to tell them they were unable to effect meaningful change on their own. NGOS were particularly frustrated by the increasing difficulty they had in reaching those zones where the needs were most acute, and even when they succeeded in doing so, in operating independently. When warlords and repressive governments did not want them around, they simply began to target the relief workers.

The language of rights has also proved alluring. For many aid workers, asserting the right of victims to receive assistance (set out in international humanitarian law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) restored their human dignity and made them more than passive recipients of the charity of others. This was part of a broader shift in the post-Cold War era toward a rights-based universalism. For humanitarian agencies, many of which had always had other commitments -- to development, to a socialist or a Christian social agenda, to international humanitarian law -- the notion of a confluence of interest between the humanitarian enterprise and the human rights movement appeared simple and morally impregnable. How could individuals not deserve protection from their rulers, just as they deserved help when overwhelmed by natural disasters? And how could humanitarian aid workers not want to take part in that struggle or feel bound by that duty? To act otherwise would be to condemn everyone who had the misfortune to be born poor, or at least in a poor country, to a life of misery and oppression or a future of intolerable vulnerability.

Annan's acceptance speech upon receiving the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize relied on the assumption that humanitarian assistance and human rights were part of the same struggle for a fairer and more peaceful world. "Today's real borders," he said, "are not between nations, but between powerful and powerless, free and fettered, privileged and humiliated. Today, no walls can separate humanitarian or human rights crises in one part of the world from national security crises in the other." It was certainly clear that for Annan there was no break in the rights continuum between "fundamental freedoms," by which he meant political rights, and economic and social rights, such as the "fundamental right to education, food, and security." A denial of either was an affront to human dignity.

Annan's deepest engagements have been with human rights, not humanitarian action. Still, his vision resonated with that of a mainstream humanitarian movement haunted by its failures and completely unreconciled to the idea that private voluntary agencies could or should resign themselves to the self-limitation insisted on by, for example, the International Rescue Committee (IRC). This understanding gathered momentum over the latter part of the 1990s, and by the end of the century it had become virtually ascendant. According to the British relief specialist Fiona Fox, the main aspects of the new humanitarianism were human rights and development relief. In the future, humanitarian action would be based at least in part on how far it furthered the cause of human rights. Aid would be withheld if delivering it could prolong conflict and undermine those goals. Undoubtedly, many humanitarian agencies were more comfortable with this changed perspective in theory than in practice, but Fox was correct in pointing out how far NGOS and donors had come in transforming themselves.

Obviously, the proponents of the new humanitarianism drew the line at applying the new human rights-based criteria to the most pressing emergency situations. No one argued, for example, for inaction in the face of the cholera epidemic that ravaged the refugee centers in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in the summer of 1994. NGOS accepted that aid would occasionally have to be given even if it failed to improve the human rights situation or threatened to make it worse. However, the idea that there was now to be, as Nicholas Stockton of Oxfam angrily observed, a new class of "undeserving victims" suggested that the most urgent question about the new humanitarianism should have been whether there was still anything humanitarian about it.

After all, what was being proposed was not simply a right of withdrawal -- as the IRC and MSF had done from the eastern Congo in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, when they concluded that they were doing more harm than good. Nor was it a case of an NGO deciding that the obduracy of a warlord or government in blocking supplies or preventing them from being fairly distributed made it impossible to help the victims. Instead, the new humanitarianism held that the traditional focus on trying to help could at times be trumped by the moral imperatives of human rights.


At the heart of the debate over the future of humanitarianism lies the question of its relationship to war. No version of the intermingling of humanitarianism and human rights makes sense except in the context of a world order in which humanitarian military intervention, or at least its credible threat, is one standard response to a so-called humanitarian crisis. The idea that states are accountable to the "international community" for the way they treat their own people has fired the imaginations of many relief workers, and understandably so -- since they had observed firsthand what happens when states and warlords are able to abuse their own people with impunity.

In theory, of course, agencies that believed it appropriate to withdraw when the local regimes they had to deal with sank below a certain human rights standard were not necessarily endorsing the doctrine of humanitarian military intervention. But in practice, they were increasingly unable to resist such calls, whether voiced by the powerful governments that funded them, private donors, or field workers.

In an age of intervention, the role of the donors was particularly important. Eric Dachy of MSF might have been correct when he wrote that "the right of intervention, peace-keeping operations invoking the use of force to guarantee the transport of relief aid, and wars fought for so-called humanitarian aims, these all constitute so many variations on a misleading theme: to accompany, or mask, a deliberate political choice with gestures of generosity and compassion." Yet by the time the war in Afghanistan began, it was increasingly difficult to distinguish between the rhetoric or even the policies of humanitarian NGOS, the UN system, and Western governments. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that few agencies today either choose to or are in a position to refuse contracts from donors or the UN. And this trend toward seeing themselves as, in effect, subcontractors for major donors has only increased since human rights considerations began to be incorporated more and more systematically into the plans and programs of the mainline NGOS.

That said, a majority of aid groups believe that if they are doing any good at all they should remain in the field, Afghanistan serving as one notable example. Had the agencies withdrawn between 1996 and 2001 because of the cruel oppression of women by the Taliban, nothing would have changed for Afghan women except that they would have lost what help they were getting from the IRC, Oxfam, or MSF. And however insufficient that help was, it was crucial to the survival of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Afghans.

Aid workers were drawn to the idea of human rights first and foremost because they were frustrated with the limits on what humanitarianism can accomplish on its own in a political vacuum. It is their grief and outrage over this, rather than some "neocolonialist" hidden agenda, that accounts for why so many of them have been mesmerized by the idea of humanitarian military intervention. Its proponents have become convinced that, at least in the most dire circumstances, either there must be force to ensure a minimal protection of human rights, or else relief programs will accomplish too little to be justifiable. A Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade or a Mullah Omar in Kandahar is not going to permit NGOS to operate as anything but purveyors of charity. And while Serb fascism and the Taliban may seem like extreme examples, in fact NGOS experienced the same constraints in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan as they do in most countries, particularly those with the greatest humanitarian need, from Sudan to Indonesia.

The claim that most humanitarian emergencies originate in human rights abuses is usually correct and demonstrable. But it is questionable whether it is wise or realistic for NGOS to rely on the possibility of a world order that would make intervention possible in situations other than those involving a great power's self-interest. Unlike international humanitarian law, the laws of war are fundamentally modest and grounded in reality. Annan's vision of a world in which it behooves the powerful to undertake endless wars of altruism when states hide behind the doctrine of sovereignty while refusing to uphold their fundamental obligations toward their own citizens is fundamentally utopian.

Reality lies elsewhere. In the case of Afghanistan, for example, for seven of ten years during the 1990s, the country did not receive more than 50 percent of the monies that the UN requested of the major Western donors and the Japanese. Aid agencies pleaded for more help, insisting that Afghanistan was one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world. All that changed only on September 11, 2001. Only in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on America did the financial commitments to relief and development by the United States and its allies increase dramatically.


To an outsider, it may seem as if humanitarians have adapted to the uncontested centrality of human rights. And yet there is so much to contest. To begin with, the language of rights is much more problematic than relief NGOS have thus far been willing to recognize. What can the "right to food" mean in the context of the real world? It is one thing to talk about rights in societies that have the means to ensure them, but quite another to do so in places that are too poor or too convulsed by ethnic war or political strife to so guarantee. The dictates of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are unlikely to translate into consequences on the ground. And yet NGOS operate on the notion that the law is or could be made independent of state power.

In the absence of some radical reform of the global order -- by which one can only mean the development of a global conscience -- such rights cannot be enforced. The U.S. government could not even integrate Southern schools in the 1950s without calling in the military. If similar force remains unavailable, what is the point of repeating the mantra that victims of humanitarian emergencies have rights? Aid workers themselves, having repeatedly been willing to put their lives on the line, are the greatest victims of this consoling fiction. It is perfectly understandable, given what relief workers do and the suffering and injustice that they witness, that many of them would want to dispense more than just aid. After all, the people they try to assist need protection at least as much as, if not more than, they need food, shelter, or medical attention. And yet at present protection is the one thing relief workers are rarely, if ever, able to provide. In every country where they operate, aid workers can recount stories of everyday murder, rape, and other brutality. It is therefore no wonder that so many relief workers have taken to fantasizing about an international equivalent of John Wayne and the Seventh Cavalry who will ride in to ensure that they can finally do their jobs.

But it is this notion, and not the reservations of humanitarian absolutists who hew to strict neutrality, that is the real retreat into wishful thinking. Soldiers who are competent enough to fight the Taliban, the Yugoslav federal army, or Somali warlords are not going to do what relief workers want. Rather, they will expect that relief workers listen to them. For all the talk of improved coordination, joint exercises, and declarations of mutual respect, the history of humanitarian military interventions from Kurdistan in 1991 to Afghanistan in 2001-2 has demonstrated just that.

Even assuming, against all odds, that the U.S., British, or French armies would be prepared to fight a war in the name of securing humanitarian access for aid workers, they would still fight that war so as to win it. And in winning it, as in Afghanistan, they would first make the humanitarian situation worse, as all wars do. That is why imagining that just wars can be joined with humanitarian imperatives is a delusion that ignores the lessons of history. World War II made the humanitarian situation of noncombatant civilian "victims" -- to use contemporary humanitarian language -- far worse; on solely humanitarian grounds that war should have been stopped, not prosecuted to the utmost.

When humanitarian NGOS speak of military intervention, they are evoking so-called police actions or robust UN peacekeeping missions, not actual war. So far, in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, by the standards of past wars, the consequences of humanitarianism and human rights-based interventions have not yet been terrible enough to give many of the activists pause. And without this necessary consciousness of the horror of war -- even of just wars that decent people are likely to support -- it is as if many humanitarians do not go far beyond contrasting the military's wealth of resources and its logistical reach with their own perennially underfunded, under-resourced condition. As a result, instead of seeing warriors, relief workers too often see little more than armed humanitarian logisticians in the field. They even go as far as to deceive themselves and the public about the relationship between relief agencies and NATO militaries.


From a strictly humanitarian point of view, collaboration with the military has not been a success, nor should it have been expected to be. In a postwar situation, where a military force is deployed not to go into combat but to intimidate belligerents who have signed a peace agreement and to perform police duties (as in Bosnia after the Dayton accords), soldiers and relief workers can work together effectively. But to imagine that war and humanitarian action can go together during hostilities is a fantasy. This is not to argue that there should never be military interventions for moral purposes, such as against genocide; western military intervention in a case such as Bosnia is justified. And not only intervention may be warranted, but protectorates as well, whether under the auspices of the UN or under those of some great power. Given the choice between liberal imperialism and barbarism, the former may well be the best that the people of Sierra Leone or perhaps even Bosnia can hope for at the moment.

But to argue for military intervention on political grounds -- to believe that it would have been right for the United States to side with a Bosnian state based on citizenship and multiethnicity against a Serb nationalism based on blood, or to finally finish off Milosevic in Kosovo -- is not the same as to promote military intervention on humanitarian grounds. That will always be a contradiction in terms. It is a perversion of humanitarianism, which must be either neutral or nothing. Today there is an increasing reevaluation, and even repudiation, of neutrality by all the mainline organizations, from UN specialized agencies to the principal NGOS. Only MSF still stands partly aloof. Among the ranks of this organization, which invented the terms of contemporary humanitarianism, there are those who side with the trend, but also others who believe that the moral coherence of their views depends on distancing themselves from the humanitarian mainstream. MSF has never claimed to hold monopoly over the right to bring assistance. The group is more than willing to stipulate that, in the contemporary context, it may be right or even unavoidable for nations to undertake humanitarian missions that will in no sense be either neutral or impartial. Nonetheless, MSF remains persuaded that for humanitarianism to do what it is pledged to do responsibly, it must function independently.

It is anything but clear that the world is a more just or peaceful place than it was at the beginning of the so-called human rights revolution. In most cases, humanitarianism is best advised to focus on saving lives, whatever the compromises it has to make along the way. Let it tend to the victims and remind the luckier corner of the world of the incalculable suffering, misery, and grief that literally billions of people feel every day of their lives. That would be accomplishment enough. Must humanitarians, whether out of despair, conformity to intellectual and moral fashion, or groundless hope, insist on trying to be the Archimedean lever for perpetual peace, the universal rule of law, or, in Oxfam's more modest formulation, the creation of a fairer world?

The tragedy of humanitarianism may be that for all its failings and limitations, it represents what is decent in an indecent world. Its core assumptions -- solidarity, a fundamental sympathy for victims, and an antipathy for oppressors and exploiters -- represent those rare moments of grace when we are at our best. So many people, including relief workers, now speak of "mere" charity, "mere" humanitarianism -- as if coping with a dishonorable world justly, and a cruel world with kindness, were not honor enough. Instead, a serious, wonderful, and limited idea has become a catchall for the thwarted aspirations of our age. And few seem to notice, and fewer still to care, about what is being lost.

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