The thin blue line between ‘humanitarianism’ and war

Conor Foley’s account of how human rights violations became a justification for launching wars reminds us of the need for a political critique of interventionism. Unfortunately, this isn’t it.

Philip Hammond

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Near the beginning of The Thin Blue Line, Conor Foley tells a story to explain what first attracted him to human rights campaigning. As a young man he was seized under the UK Prevention of Terrorism Act in a police raid on a friend’s flat. Strip-searched, deprived of sleep and interrogated without a lawyer present, he was held without charge for two days, for no crime other than being Irish in 1980s Britain. The episode, and Foley’s response to it, give an insight into both the strengths and the limitations of his book.

Its main strength is a willingness to challenge much of the received wisdom about humanitarian interventionism. Foley observes pointedly that ‘it is always easier to condemn human rights violations in far-off places than those committed nearer to home by your own government or its closest allies’. In his own case, an Irish nationalist family background and personal experience of the sharp end of the British state may help to explain his more critical perspective. As he comments, ‘words such as conflict, torture, terrorism and famine always held particular meanings for me, rooted as they were in my Fenian heritage’.

It is telling, however, that Foley’s response to his arbitrary arrest under Britain’s draconian anti-terror laws was not an overtly political one. Instead, he became involved in campaigns against miscarriages of justice and in human rights advocacy, first in relation to the Irish war, and later more broadly through his work for Amnesty International and other NGOs. The Thin Blue Line makes some valuable criticisms of the consequences of ‘political humanitarianism’, yet the questions he addresses – of rights, sovereignty, self-determination and military intervention – demand a political response, whereas Foley tends to understand them in terms of moral dilemmas and abuses of legal rules.

The book is about two related, but distinct phenomena: the politicisation of humanitarian aid, and the use of ethical, ‘humanitarian’ justifications for war and intervention. Today, where emergency humanitarian aid should be neutral, it has been made into an instrument of policy; and where state policy should be concerned with strategic interest, it is instead made to be about ethics and humanitarianism.

In the past, there was a clear distinction between the neutral, non-political provision of emergency relief and more strategic uses of aid. During the Cold War, for example, both sides used development assistance to favour their allies, while the work of NGOs often overlapped with solidarity campaigns protesting injustice and oppression in the Third World. Humanitarian aid, on the other hand, was understood differently – as concerned to relieve the worst symptoms of human suffering in crises and conflicts, not to address underlying causes or to make moral judgements about who was a ‘deserving’ victim.

The first explicit challenge to humanitarian neutrality was the 1967-1970 Biafran war, when France’s current foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, shot to public attention by resigning from his post as a Red Cross doctor over the organisation’s failure to take sides in the conflict. A huge private aid operation ensued, but the effect was to make matters worse, exacerbating and prolonging the war. According to Foley, ‘the Biafra intervention is… now widely recognised, in humanitarian circles at least, as a huge political error’. Yet despite the failure, he argues, Biafra became the ‘prototype’ for a new approach.

That new approach really took off after the end of the Cold War. In 1992, the two trends mentioned above came together in the international response to famine and conflict in Somalia. Critics argued that humanitarian aid was ‘sustaining a war economy’, as local militias looted supplies and used ‘humanitarian taxes’ to buy weapons. Instead, NGOs called for military intervention to sort out the ‘warlords’ and protect relief supplies.

Western governments responded with a massive military mobilisation in the name of humanitarianism. One US official coined the term ‘shoot-to-feed’ to describe a mission which turned the delivery of aid into a military operation, while reorienting Western foreign policy around ‘humanitarian’ objectives. The results were disastrous for all concerned: the military mission ended in failure, the independence of aid workers was compromised, and Somalis were shot and tortured by international forces as their country descended further into chaos.

Foley’s defence of the principle of humanitarian neutrality – though not as ‘groundbreaking’ as the book’s publicity claims (1) – is a welcome contribution, and his first-hand account often undercuts more orthodox versions of events. Visiting the Kurdish ‘safe haven’ established in northern Iraq in 1991 by the victorious Gulf War coalition, for example, Foley found it a ‘hellhole’. One refugee described it as ‘like living in the world’s biggest concentration camp’. Back in the UK, however, no one was interested, since a NATO ally, Turkey, was the main cause of the suffering. Similarly, Foley not only skewers the self-serving falsehoods and distortions of political leaders seeking to justify the 1999 Kosovo bombing in humanitarian terms, but also details his experience of the ‘disaster’ which followed. Kosovo’s international administrators spouted the rhetoric of human rights while presiding over the creation of a ‘mono-ethnic state’ as minorities were driven out or killed.

While Foley is a sharp critic of the consequences of liberal interventionism, however, he is less persuasive in analysing its causes. He rightly rejects the crude and misguided critique which sees humanitarian rhetoric as a mere cover for the pursuit or self-interest, a way to justify operations whose ‘real’ objective is to secure access to oil and gas or to establish military bases and pliant regimes. But in the absence of an alternative explanation, the implication is that liberal interventionism is genuinely altruistic in intent, even if counter-productive in its results.

Foley’s discussion of the ‘war on terror’ – which he sees as a break from liberal interventionism rather than a continuation of its logic – is revealing in this respect. His repeated insistence that the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq ‘cannot be classified as humanitarian’ is symptomatic of his desire to disassociate the wholly negative interventions undertaken by the Bush administration from the potentially positive ideals of international intervention. For all his criticisms, he therefore ends up defending the human rights movement and its advocacy of an ‘international rules-based system’, arguing that ‘the non-interference rule cannot… be absolute’, and supporting the establishment of an International Criminal Court as a step in the right direction.

This is a pity, since Foley has the elements of an alternative explanation at hand. He notes how, in the 1990s, the ‘ethical values’ of human rights were drafted in to fill the void left by the ‘failed ideologies’ of left and right, and observes that ‘political humanitarianism was… partly a response to the declining participation in mainstream politics in Europe and North America’. Yet while he understands the motivations of the NGOs themselves clearly enough, he glosses over the fact that the same reasoning applies to Western governments. Rather than exploring how political leaders have been drawn to the ethical discourse of humanitarianism and human rights in our post-ideological era, he instead sees NGOs as setting the foreign policy agenda.

Foley is not only largely uninterested in the political dimension of the developments he describes, he even appears rather relieved that the problems of the Third World are no longer the object of left/right contestation. Disparaging political commitment as ‘the notion that groups mouthing radical slogans can be trusted to help the people they claim to represent’, he offers an ethical critique of the trends he discusses, putting his faith more in legal process than political engagement. For example, he considers Alex de Waal’s argument that the intrusion of international humanitarian agencies undermines mechanisms of local political accountability (2), but then dodges the point. He instead answers a different criticism, proposing that abuses such as the ‘sex-for-food’ scandal in West African refugee camps could be dealt with via further international assistance, this time in the form of legal aid programmes.

Any amount of international legal aid, however, cannot substitute for genuine self-determination. That can only come about if governments are held accountable by their citizens, rather than by the ‘international community’. In the end, for Foley, too, a legalistic and ethical discourse fills a politics-shaped hole.

Philip Hammond is reader in media and communications at London South Bank University, and is the author of Media, War and Postmodernity, published by Routledge in 2007 (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War, by Conor Foley, is published by Verso. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

(1) See ‘Conditioning the Right to Humanitarian Aid? Human Rights and the “New Humanitarianism”’, by Fiona Fox, in Rethinking Human Rights, Palgrave, 2002

(2) Famine Crimes, by Alex de Waal, Indiana University Press, 1997: p.xvi

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