Humanitarian space and the humanitarian present

Today (19 August: WordPress is 8 hours ahead of me!) has been designated World Humanitarian Day by the United Nations General Assembly  ‘to coincide with the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, which killed 22 UN staff’.  From The Colonial Present:

The old Canal Hotel had been used as a base by UN weapons inspectors and sanctions monitors before the war – it became known as “the Sanctions Building” – and it remained a soft target after the UN mission moved in.  Its local secretariat had refused high-level security in order to distance the mission from the fortified compounds of the occupying power.  On August 19 a massive truck bomb exploded outside, devastating the building and a nearby hospital.  At least 23 people were killed, including the UN special representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and more than 100 injured, many of them seriously.  Most Iraqis were appalled by the mass murder of civilians from many different countries, and there was considerable speculation about the identities and motives of those responsible for the atrocity.  Although there were several reasons why the United Nations could have been the object of such an attack (UN-mandated sanctions and UN Security Council Resolution 1483 to name but two), the real target seemed to be the occupation itself.  For the attack was a hideous reversal of the coalition’s own strategy of “shock and awe”.  What one journalist described as “the horrifying spectacle of a major building in the capital blown apart” was designed not only to demonstrate the strength of the opposition but also to isolate the coalition through intimidation.  Baghdad was already a city under siege, but the blast heightened the sense of impotence and vulnerability.  The primary objective was to deter others from coming to the assistance of the coalition and hence to increase the burden of the occupation upon the United States.

This year’s World Humanitarian Day campaign is called “I was here” but, as that awful anniversary ought to remind readers in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, “we were there too – and the main burden of the occupation fell upon the people of Iraq.   

Iraq Body Count estimates that from 1 January 2003 through to 11 July 2012 (the latest date today for which figures are available) there were between 108,183 and 118,224 documented civilian deaths.  IBC notes that ‘full analysis of the Iraqi War Logs released by Wikileaks may add 13,000 civilian deaths’.  There have been several other projects that have tried to count and/or estimate deaths in Iraq, but the War Logs are particularly useful for suggesting the breakdown of total deaths:

The vast majority of casualties were indeed civilians, and the geography of their deaths was plotted on a number of websites from the Wikileaks data: Visualising data reviewed a number of these maps (with further links), and SpatialKey provided its own series of sobering maps.  (For an interactive map of coalition casualties – pairing locations in Iraq with hometowns in the USA – see here).  And Luke Condra, Jacob Shapiro and their colleagues have provided detailed quantitative analysis – using the IBC database and SIGACTS reports – in a series of papers, including”Who takes the blame?  The strategic effects of collateral damage”, American Journal of Political Science 56 (1) (2012) 167-87 and currently available on open access here.

The UN website for World Humanitarian Day continues: ‘Every day humanitarian aid workers help millions of people around the world, regardless of who they are and where they are. World Humanitarian Day is a global celebration of people helping people.’  I contemplate this hard on the heels of reading Eyal Weizman on the humanitarian present in The least of all possible evils: Humanitarian violence from Arendt to Gaza (London: Verso, 2012).  I noted this book in a previous post; Weizman’s concept of ‘the humanitarian present’ emerged via a series of interviews and conversations with Rony Brauman, the former president of Médecins san Frontières and currently professeur associé at Sciences-Po Paris.  Brauman’s alternative conception of ‘humanitarian space’ is radically different from the spatial imaginary of UN agencies where, Weizman explains,

‘humanitarian spaces are clusters of extraterritorial enclaves and the protected corridors that connect them with infrastructure and transport centres.  These kinds of humanitarian spaces are often marked as circles on maps around the areas where relief operations take place – at “the internal peripheries of war”‘ (pp. 56-7).

These are the sites of the humanitarian present: platforms for the operation of those ‘moral technologies’ through which humanitarian agencies and humanitarian law work in concert with military and political power to calibrate the contemporary economy of violence and to govern ‘the displaced, the enemy and the unwanted’ (p. 4).  (Jennifer Hyndman‘s brilliant work on the politics of aid, humanitarianism and securitization speaks directly to these claims, and for a parallel critique of UN peacekeeping, see Paul Higate and Marsha Henry’s Insecure spaces: peacekeeping, power and performance in Haiti, Kosovo and Liberia (London: Zed Books, 2009)).

Against this, Brauman advances a conception of humanitarian space not as a territorial zone – thus sans frontières, without borders – but rather as what Weizman glosses as ‘a set of operational categories, or space-bound circumstantial conditions, that make independent humanitarian work possible’ – that ‘hold relief work at a distance from political and military practice’ (pp. 56-7).

There are critiques of Brauman’s views – see note (2) below – and Weizman is no camp-follower: he has important things to say about the radicalization of humanitarian space so that ‘the politics of humanitarianism’ can give ground to ‘the politics of the displaced’ (p. 61).  But in tragic measure this was exactly what motivated Sergio Vieira de Mello too: to distance his work in Baghdad from Bush’s ‘armies of compassion’ and Blair’s ‘military-humanitarian mission’.

Further notes

(1) Ashley Jackson reports that the annual incidence of major attacks against aid workers worldwide has more than doubled since 2003.

(2) For critical discussions and elaborations of ‘humanitarian space’ see D. Robert DeChaine, ‘Humanitarian space and the social imaginary: Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders and the rhetoric of global community’, Journal of communications inquiry 26 (4) (2002) 354-69; Dorothea Hilhorst and Bram Jansen, ‘Humanitarian space as arena: a perspective on the everyday politics of aid’, Development & Change 41 (6) (2010) 1117-39; Margo Kleinfeld, ‘Misreading the post-tsunami political landscape in Sri Lanka: the myth of humanitarian space’, Space & Polity 11 (2) (2007) 169-84; Adi Ophir, ‘The sovereign, the humanitarian and the terrorist’ (2003); Benjamin Perrin (ed), Modern warfare: armed groups, private militaries, humanitarian organizations and the law (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012) (see Part Three: “The Humanitarian Space debate”); Maurya Wickstrom, Performances in the blockades of neoliberalism: Thinking the political anew (Houndmills: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012) (Ch. 3 includes a discussion of Brauman and Ophir that speaks directly to Weizman’s project).

3 thoughts on “Humanitarian space and the humanitarian present

  1. Pingback: Violence in the humanitarian present « geographical imaginations

  2. Pingback: The humanitarian present, humanitarian reason and imperialism « geographical imaginations

  3. Pingback: Just looking? | geographical imaginations

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