By Conor Foley, a humanitarian aid worker (THE GUARDIAN, 15/08/07):
One of the problems with discussing humanitarian intervention is that the term itself means different things to different people. For legal scholars it describes military intervention to come to the aid of people facing acute danger, for humanitarian aid workers it is the impartial distribution of emergency relief.During the 1990s the two activities became increasingly intertwined as military convoys were used to open “humanitarian corridors” to civilians trapped in conflict zones. Aid workers also felt increasingly compelled to speak out about the atrocities that they witnessed. “One cannot stop a genocide with medicines,” proclaimed Médecins sans Frontières during the Rwandan crisis of 1994, and a year later others mourned the “well-fed dead” of Srebrenica.
“Political humanitarianism” emerged in response. Drawing on concepts based on international human-rights law, its advocates argued that certain circumstances created a “duty to intervene”. Humanitarian organisations should urge action by western governments to end atrocities. The neutral Red Cross approach, like the system of collective security based on the UN Charter, had become an excuse for inertia and indifference to global suffering.
In its practical application, however, political humanitarianism has been a resounding failure. Brendan Behan’s observation that there is no situation so dismal that a policeman can’t make it worse could be readily applied. From the UN’s first chapter seven action in Somalia, soon dubbed “operation shoot to feed” by its critics, to today’s Save Darfur campaign, the political humanitarians are proving that the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.
As Jonathan Steele recently observed on these pages, there are now some good reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the future of Darfur. Progress in talks between the various rebel factions could lead to a common negotiating platform. The Sudanese government has meanwhile agreed to the UN’s latest resolution on the deployment of a peace-talking force, largely due to the diplomatic efforts of the Chinese.
Britain and France, which sponsored the UN resolution, also deserve some credit, not least for not undermining the nascent peace process. The sudden arrival of western diplomats during the negotiations in May last year forced the pace too fast, leading to a breakdown, although an inclusive agreement was described as “astonishingly close”. There is now a real chance of the type of deal that brought peace to southern Sudan after its decades-long civil war.
In these circumstances it was utterly irresponsible of the Save Darfur Coalition to run advertisements claiming that the time for negotiating with the Sudanese government had ended. That it did so without the consent of humanitarian organisations and claimed that these groups supported military action borders on breathtaking. Aid organisations are all that stand between many civilians and starvation, and this action imperilled their ability to operate. But, as a statement by Action Against Hunger – one of the few organisations still in Darfur – noted, the claim is clearly also flawed within its own terms. The belief that western troops can fight their way into Darfur, routing the Sudanese army and disarming militia forces, is simply not credible. Even those not prepared to learn the broader lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan must accept that existing commitments remove the threat of serious western military action.
Gordon Brown should also learn the lessons of the rhetorical failures of his predecessor. Darfur is not “the greatest humanitarian disaster the world faces today” as he claimed. It is a brutal messy conflict, currently being investigated by the international criminal court. This has already indicted one senior Sudanese government official, and if more evidence emerges, more charges should follow. But arguing for political prosecutions as a means of pressuring the government is anathema to the notion of international justice.
Neutral humanitarianism needs to take back the moral high ground. There is nothing obtuse about refusing to take sides and, in my experience, most gunmen look similar up close. One of my saddest days in Afghanistan was when I took the humanitarian emblems off my organisation’s vehicles because the symbols designed to protect us had come to identify us as “legitimate targets”. It is a shame that those who display such moral eloquence in the cause of political humanitarianism cannot understand the simple tragedy of that act.