Reinvigorating Humanitarian Intervention

Or at least the debate over it. Scott Malcomson, a former advisor to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has a review essay on two new books on humanitarian intervention. Remember that phrase? Speak the words, and they shall become real again; and after the last 8 years of silence, a relief to see more of this in print. Malcomson piece reviews Conor Foley’s The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War (Verso), and Gareth Evans’ The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All (Brookings Institution Press).

In general:

It is hard to date exactly when humanitarianism got decisively bound up with making war, although many would point to Colin Powell’s 2001 endorsement of relief workers in Afghanistan as a “force multiplier for us . . . an important part of our combat team.” In these two very different books, Conor Foley, an experienced relief worker, laments the transformation of humanitarianism into an aspect of politics, while Gareth Evans, a doughty Australian politician and head of the International Crisis Group, argues for something like its institutionalization. Both books are poised to influence debate as we make the turn into a post-Bush world.

Not sure I agree with Malcomson’s triangulation here, since humanitarianism was but one of many fields securitized in what one might, for lack of a better term, call the “war effort”. In this, he might be missing the larger debate on the role of neutrality in international relations, and the kicking it’s been receiving since the early 1990s.

On Bush:

Foley and Evans both end their books with rather unexpected salvoes of anti-Bush feeling, which I take to be backhanded adieus to a man who, by enabling the international community to unite against Washington, has provided it with a coherence it might not otherwise have had. It will be fascinating to see what the community does when it no longer has George W. Bush to kick around — or to hold it together.

Ooookaayyy… I concede that the outgoing administration’s policies and actions repolarized domestic and global politics, which may have had a cohering effect in certain sectors. But I wonder if humanitarianism was one of them, or whether we actually know to what extent it was coherent or not in the years prior to Bush Jr. After close to a decade spent quivering in the shade of warfighting, at least part of the debate should now turn to the hows and whys of humanitarian consciousness that sprouted in the 1990s (where’s Peter Novick when you need him?), how it compares to the last eight years’ interpretation of the issues, and how underlying problems of intermediacy and indeterminacy have shaped the landscape throughout.

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