Monday, June 20, 2011

The whens, hows, rights and wrongs of humanitarian intervention

Conor Foley, the author of The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War, reminds readers that, in 1999, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan posed a question that must haunt anyone wishing to prevent and relieve human suffering:

"How should we respond to another Rwanda or Srebrenica [massacre]?"

Foley is an experienced humanitarian worker who has served with a variety of non-governmental agencies in disaster and war zones in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In this book, he breaks down some of what has helped and what has harmed in the various international forays into war-torn and/or disaster-struck countries over the last 20 years. He is not confident that much good has been achieved, but this book certainly provides a lot of context about these civilian interventions.

British and other internationalists have more nuanced categories for thinking about these issues than people in the United States. I had trouble at first disentangling Foley's terminology. Here's what I figured out: when he writes of "humanitarianism," he means non-governmental organizations that devote themselves to the immediate needs of suffering people and that usually have taken up some rhetoric and practice aimed at sustainable development: think Oxfam or CARE. Writing of "human rights," he means proliferating efforts to bring principles of international law to states and people in distress: think Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. In most of the world, the most significant non-governmental organizations of both types are various United Nations bodies -- in this country we remain largely oblivious to the UN, except when our rulers congratulate themselves on obtaining the fig leaf of UN assent to adventures such as the current war in Libya.

Foley begins by sharing one of humanitarianism's dirty and little discussed insights: the 1970 campaign to feed starving Biafrans in Nigeria's southeast separatist corner -- an intervention that set the template for much subsequent non-governmental work in conflict areas -- was badly ill-conceived and executed.

... the Biafra intervention is also now widely recognized, in humanitarian circles at least, as a huge political error. The Igbo leadership used it to raise money to keep the war going by effectively taxing the NGOs who were delivering supplies. They turned down the offer of a supervised 'land corridor', realizing how dramatic the night flights had become. The flights were also used as cover for bringing in weapons along the same route, in clear violation of international humanitarian law.

...when Biafra finally surrendered in January 1970, the central government was noticeably conciliatory to its defeated foes. ... The conflict was also marked by a willingness of aid agencies and the international media to collude in a skillful campaign by the Biafran political leaders who hired a PR company to promote their cause. ...Most aid organizations now admit that the main effect of their efforts was to prolong the conflict by a further eighteen months ...

One trouble is that relief organizations have to spotlight human suffering and then make their own work highly visible within any disaster context in order to persuade donors to fund their efforts. Any of us who've raised money for a non-profit know this well. In the immediate aftermath of a calamity that happens in a place without major prior ongoing conflict, this necessary dramatization may not have such bad consequences. Foley holds up the response to the 2005 Pacific tsunami as such a relatively benign intervention.

If the tsunami diverted resources from elsewhere it was mainly due to the action of humanitarian agencies who understood its fund-raising potential from a business point of view. Aid agencies need to follow the high-profile disasters because it is what their supporters expect. They may well know they are duplicating the efforts of others, but it would be impossible to ignore a disaster on the scale of the tsunami. ...

... Despite the waste, the tsunami relief operation deserves to be remembered as a qualified success. ... Two million people were displaced by the disaster and there were initial fears of a second catastrophe through the spread of infectious diseases. But no public health emergency occurred and within days the majority of people affected received food, water, sanitation, shelter and healthcare. Within a month, the emergency response phase geared to saving lives was completed, and the focus moved to recovering livelihoods and getting children back to school.

In war zones, efforts that Foley has seen and worked within haven't gone so well, especially those that tried to go beyond relieving immediate suffering to promotion of human rights. Most visibly, in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. invading armies made no secret that NGO work was welcome as a "force multiplier" -- a cheap means of providing some benefits to win over occupied populations. The occupied people were not so happy about that; conflict zones have become death zones for "humanitarian" workers who were too often viewed as just more invaders.

NGO's understand the problems; they work hard to transfer their work to local, native country, staff. That means training them in the values of international human rights -- and that process often has an Alice in Wonderland quality as the norms prescribed have so little to do with the experience and society into which agencies are trying to plant them. Foley recounts the response of Kosovan co-workers to a training on children's rights.

A young Scandinavian lawyer working for UNICEF gave one of the speeches, during which she went through the Convention on the Rights of the Child that came into force in 1989, and is one of the most extensive of the human rights conventions. ... I noticed that everyone took copious notes while she was speaking but no one challenged any of her assertions, though they must have jarred with the cultural ethos of the society in which they were raised.

Walking back to the office with one of my national colleagues, 1 asked her about this. She replied that in order to be appointed to any professional position in the former Yugoslavia it was necessary to pass an exam in Marxist-Leninism. "Everyone knew it was nonsense, but we just learned it off by heart and repeated what the examiner wanted us to say. Then we forgot about it and just got on with our jobs. The communists ruled us then and now you do. It is basically the same thing though," she concluded.

So much for facile assumptions of universal values.

Foley is very skeptical of the International Criminal Court -- and not only because the United States has undermined it at every turn, refusing to allow any possibility that possibly criminal actions by our own military might ever be subject to review by an international body. (That's the content of our beloved "American exceptionalism" in the real world: impunity.) Without genuine assent from all the world's great military powers, the ICC remains a backwater functional only "for dealing with mid-level thugs and warlords or retired dictators" -- yet too often the threat of punishment from this ineffectual body only makes ending local conflicts more difficult.

Even some people in Britain and other parts of the rich world who might be expected to be friends of NGO aid work rather lightly refuse to engage imaginatively with the implications of Annan's question. Foley laments

a long-standing ambivalence by a section of the left towards human rights and humanitarianism. The idea that rights should be defended for their own sake or that interventions should be judged by the criteria of whether they help or harm people is derided as naive. The more important issue, these leftists argue, is 'whose side you are on' in a global ideological struggle. This used to be defined in cold war terms but is increasingly presented as one of 'anti-imperialism' versus 'liberal interventionism'. Traditionally, many on the left and right of the political spectrum were prepared to overlook human rights violations when committed by their allies, or refrain from denouncing them lest it provide 'propaganda' for their opponents.

The UN intervention that didn't happen in the Sudan's Darfur region in the last decade -- despite the diligent urging of some humanitarian organizations that the refugee crisis there amounted to "genocide" -- provides Foley with an example of what he considers culpable political incapacity on the part of humanitarian organizations.

One of the noticeable differences between human rights and humanitarian organizations is that the former err on the side of caution when reporting violations, whereas the latter never knowingly understate the scale of a crisis. Advocacy reporting is not humanitarianism's core business and many organizations often use their reports for other purposes, such as fund-raising. Even with the best intentions, there may be a temptation to dramatize a particular crisis, since the general view is that no harm can come from making people care too much about suffering. This means there will always be potential issues of fact-checking, quality control and manipulation...

Yet despite these dangers, there remain the suffering people; in response, aid agencies inevitably undertake compromised missions, at least some of the time.

If a government is deliberately starving a civilian population as a means of waging war, then humanitarian organizations are legally and morally justified in taking the 'borderless doctors' approach in flouting its authority to deliver life-saving aid. Beyond this though, once humanitarians assume responsibility for aspects of state-building, adopt a rights-based approach to aid delivery or the use of such aid for peace-building purposes, they inevitably compromise their principles of independence and impartiality.

There will probably be situations in the future when humanitarian organizations feel that only international intervention will prevent mass killing or where their programme activity can help promote peace, justice and reconciliation, but the experience of recent years strongly suggests that the principle 'first, do no harm' is best preserved by humanitarian neutrality.

Humanitarian interventions are at best a necessary evil since by their very nature they cause harm to the societies they are trying to help. Even at their most benign, relief assistance operations, such as the one following the tsunami, lead to economic and social distortion, weaken local capacity and encourage dependence. Military interventions are even more destabilizing and result in significant costs for both the occupier and occupied. It is noticeable how few places where large-scale humanitarian interventions took place in recent years have succeeded in making the transition to stability. ...

The Thin Blue Line was published in 2008. Reading the book in 2011, I wondered what Foley thought of the current NATO/US campaign in Libya. He is someone who might have a nuanced view. Fortunately, he's told us what he thinks in a post at Crooked Timber. On March 22 he wrote:

... the case for or against a ‘humanitarian intervention’ rests on answering two broad questions: has the level of violence reached such a threshold that the use of counter-force is morally justifiable and is it a practical, strategic option that will actually make things better for the people concerned?

...On balance I am in favour of the current intervention in Libya. ... I think that the UN resolution authorizing it puts the protection of civilians at the centre of its mandate and sends a clear signal to governments of the world that they cannot massacre their own people with impunity.

I do not know what the end game is. I accept that the campaign will result in people being killed by allied airstrikes and I presume that the intervening governments have selfish as well as altruistic motives for their actions. However, I think that the situation in Libya immediately prior to the intervention passed the threshold test that I set out above. I think that the UN is fulfilling its responsibility to protect the lives of civilians in this case.

I wonder whether Foley still looks at the Libya intervention the same way. I've lost any hope I had in the project, in good part because I am watching our president make up transparently flimsy legal excuses for violating our own principles of government in order to carry it out. If jumping in encourages bad conduct here, I tend to think it is not likely to bring good fruit in someone else's country. But maybe I ask too much moral clarity.

The Thin Blue Line concludes by reinforcing that even the most dedicated humanitarians end up living with moral ambiguity.

Tens of thousands of humanitarian aid workers are confronted with [a] moral dilemma every day. They might help individual people in a crisis zone, but they can never be absolutely certain that the overall impact of their presence does more good than harm. While their presence pricks the world's conscience that 'something must be done' it simultaneously reinforces the delusion that humanitarian action can ever be enough. In reality they are just another part of the problem.

Long term humanitarian workers have to be made of tough moral stuff.


tina said...

Thank you, very interesting. What does he say about the International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC?

Kay Dennison said...

Thank you for calling attention to these atrocities!!! I wish I were in a position to help. I'm fighting my own war these days.

janinsanfran said...

@tina -- Foley has a good deal to say about the ICRC. Most of it derives from its special status, being written into the Geneva Conventions. I left it out because it is a whole 'nother byway.