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Humanitarian NGOs and the big stick policy

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Rony Brauman
Rony
Brauman

Medical doctor, specialized in tropical medicine and epidemiology. Involved in humanitarian action since 1977, he has been on numerous missions, mainly in contexts of armed conflicts and IDP situations. President of Médecins sans Frontières from 1982 to1994, he also teaches at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) and is a regular contributor to Alternatives Economiques. He has published several books and articles, including "Guerre humanitaires ? Mensonges et Intox" (Textuel, 2018), "La Médecine Humanitaire" (PUF, 2010), "Penser dans l'urgence" (Editions du Seuil, 2006) and "Utopies Sanitaires" (Editions Le Pommier, 2000).

In January 2009, eight regional and national NGOs got together to create the "International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect www.responsibilitytoprotect.org." The photo on their website's homepage sets the tone: strapping lads in fatigues, surrounding a group of children against a background of tropical vegetation  - an image worthy of the French Army's psychological warfare unit during the "pacification" in Algeria.  Like its colonial great-uncle, this new civilizing mission justifies itself as a rejection of mass atrocities - a humanitarian ideal if ever there was one. And to remove any lingering ambiguity, several of the authors of The Responsibility to Protect (or R2P, in international parlance) published another manifesto in Canada last month, entitled The Will to Intervene, in the hopes of persuading the US and Canadian governments to formulate doctrines for military engagement in situations of violence against civilians, and for the prevention of the same. One can only imagine the delight with which they greeted the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech by the president of the United States.

This isn't the place for a detailed analysis of their expectations and recommendations; we'll have to settle with highlighting, on one hand, the dread the authors attempt to elicit, right from page one, in order to give their undertaking the urgent and incontestable character befitting moral causes; and on the other hand, especially, the historical background against which they set their project, starting with the Nazi horror and continuing with a reminder of the "systematic killings of innocent civilians in Indonesia, Burundi, East Pakistan, Cambodia, East Timor, Rwanda, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo."  What's most telling about this list, though, is who it leaves out. Gone are the imperial massacres in Madagascar and Algeria, Vietnam and Afghanistan, Tibet, Latin America and Chechnya, along with the Iraq disaster and today's quagmires in Afghanistan and Somalia. Forgotten, in short, are all the crimes committed by the powerful - in this case, permanent members of the Security Council. From its first moment on the scene, this soldierly idealism uses the promising tone of selective memory. 
Although this document commits only its authors, private and UN humanitarian organizations would do well to state their position about its overall message, if not on the specific measures it argues for. A quick look back over the past two decades reveals a worrisome trend toward the convergence between relief actions and the "Big stick policy" - a convergence considerably sharpened by the United States' return to "just war."

NGO teams frequently worked alongside soldiers in various crises during the 1980s, but the latter confined their role to logistics; they worked unarmed, and no one had a problem with it. During the following decade, the means of transport were supplemented with offensive weapons;  the "new humanitarian order" invented by George Bush, Sr. was born in Iraqi Kurdistan, and really got on its feet with Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. Hesitant and divided, humanitarians alternated between calling for intervention and criticizing it (Bosnia and Liberia in 1993 and Rwanda in 1994, in particular). Interventionist aspirations at the time were satisfied, however, in Kosovo and Iraq - invasions actively backed by supporters of the "right to interfere" (droit d'ingérence) based precisely on the principle of "just war." They now go by the name "Responsibility to Protect."

Enthusiasm for punitive justice emerged in the same circumstances ("ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia, genocide in Rwanda) as - and as a natural extension of - the call for military intervention. Nearly all of the NGOs joined the Coalition for International Justice, and the Treaty of Rome creating the ICC is often seen as their victory, under the slogan "no peace without justice." While the contradictions between giving aid in the field and testimony in the courts are now acknowledged by the main humanitarian organizations and by the ICC itself, the "fight against impunity" theme continues to rally the majority of votes within the NGOs - despite its fundamentally selective nature. The war in Darfur condensed and magnified this martial humanitarianism, which is to humanitarianism what military music is to music.  

If NGOs do not want to be perceived as the moral foot soldiers of the powerful, they had better distinguish themselves from the virtual "Noah's Ark" that is the "Responsibility to Protect" and its various incarnations, and this means a shared reflection on their legitimate field of action and its limits. President Barak Obama's speech only makes this need more pressing.

To cite this content :
Rony Brauman, Humanitarian NGOs and the big stick policy, 14 December 2009, URL : https://www.msf-crash.org/en/blog/war-and-humanitarianism/humanitarian-ngos-and-big-stick-policy

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