Relieving pain, with blinkers

The ostensible right to humanitarian intervention in third countries is not upheld by existing international law and it comprises nothing but a veiled attempt to pursue politically expedient objectives, which stands at odds with the very premises of humanitarian action, the audience of a roundtable discussion was told Thursday. Unlike state-led action, only a truly internationalist humanitarian movement that transcends the complacent Western perspective, the panel said, can guarantee the advancement of ecumenical humanitarian principles. The conference, which was organized by To Vima newspaper and the French Institute in Athens, took place in the shadow of the recent Bush administration’s decision to put the military in charge of US humanitarian operations in Iraq, a move that prompted the reaction of private relief agencies which expressed concerns over the blurring between military and humanitarian command structures. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are worried that US forces could misdirect humanitarian aid in order to appease particular groups and that American leadership of the operations could disenchant vital international donors. «Humanitarian aid must be distributed according to the needs of the victims, not according to their political behavior,» Rony Brauman, professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques and former president of Medicins Sans Frontieres said. The volunteers, Brauman said, must enter the theater of war stripped of any political biases or peace-making designs. To make political calculations, he added, is «to deny the starting point of humanitarian operations.» Brauman attacked the much celebrated «right to humanitarian intervention» as being nothing but old wine in a new bottle. «In invoking the defense of human freedom and dignity, the US is merely changing the language of the colonial civilization missions,» the French professor said, adding that this practice amounts to little more than the «might is right» dogma. The idea and the actual launching of «humanitarian interventions» in places such as Bosnia and Kosovo have been the subject of intense controversy over the right of the international community to intervene in third countries in order to prevent human rights abuses in those states. According to the UN charter, the use of force is mandated only in the event of self-defense or in carrying out a UN resolution for the purpose of international peace and security. In the case of the Iraq war, the USA and Britain came under fierce criticism, particularly from within the EU, for acting outside a UN mandate. «The idea that there can be a politically neutral humanitarian operation carried out by a nation-state is a pipe dream,» said Odysseas Boudouris, a doctor and former president of the Greek branch of Medicins Sans Frontieres, noting that there is an inevitable interaction between societies and humanitarian organizations which is influenced by the political and historical conjuncture. Boudouris maintained that he is not against the idea of «humanitarian intervention» per se but with the actual practice, for this is bound to be tailored to the interests of the strongest states. «It’s impossible to think of a humanitarian intervention in Russia, China or in an American prison,» he explained. Similar problems are likely to beset the operation of an international war crimes court, Brauman said, as such tribunal would be bound to meet out «the justice of the victors.» «Justice will be hostage to political interests,» Brauman told the conference. In fact, the International Criminal Court (ICC) actually fell pray to political objectives, even before its inauguration. The globocourt, as the ICC is often called, came into force in July last year but, having been snubbed by the USA, Russia and China, it remains extremely doubtful whether it will be able to flex its muscle. Washington has launched a controversial campaign to ensure that the tribunal will not prosecute American citizens and has even sought bilateral agreements to ensure that its citizens are exempt from ICC authority. The harshness of realpolitik prompted Philippe Mesnard, professor of modern literature at the University of Marne-la-Vallee, to invoke Michel Foucault’s inversion of the famous Clausewitz quote, saying that «politics is the continuation of war by other means.» It is this conflict of political interests, Brauman said, «that jeopardizes the independence of humanitarian organizations both at the economic level as well as at the level of public opinion.» The only solution, Brauman asserted, is the internationalization of humanitarian action in order to overcome the traditional perspective of the wealthy European states. «This is the only way to remain faithful to the universal principles of the humanitarian movement,» he said. However, Brauman’s optimism over the existence of unalienable universal human rights that we should seek to defended was overshadowed by his less sanguine picture of human nature. Humanitarian efforts derive from sympathy, while war originates in man’s will for destruction. These two co-exist inside men, he said. «It’s like a child that squashes an insect, but then goes to save the life of some other animal.»