The humanitarian present, humanitarian reason and imperialism

More from my continuing reflections on the humanitarian present: first, a recent interview with Jean Bricmont, the author of Humanitarian Imperialism: using human rights to sell war (Monthly Review Press, 2006) at Counterpunch here.

If you don’t know the book but the name seems familiar: Bricard co-authored Fashionable Nonsense: postmodern intellectuals’ abuse of science (Picador, 1998) with Alan Sokal (yes, that Alan Sokal).

And if the idea of ‘humanitarian imperialism’ seems to echo Noam Chomsky‘s ‘military humanism’ – remember his The new military humanism: Lessons from Kosovo (Common Courage Press, 2009), and if you do see also his A new generation draws the line: humanitarian intervention and the “responsibility to protect” today (new edition, Paradigm, 2011) – then here is Chomsky on Bricard and ‘the new doctrine of imperial right’.

All that said, Bricard’s (and Chomsky’s) vision is considerably narrower than the sense in which Eyal Weizman develops the idea of a ‘humanitarian present‘ that involves the entanglement of military violence, international humanitarian law and NGOs. Here I think some of the sharpest contributions have come from Costas Douzinas, Professor of Law at Birkbeck, University of London.  His relevant essays have appeared all over the place, but the core arguments are assembled in his Human Rights and Empire (Routledge, 2007).

The significance of Douzinas’s project was beautifully captured by Umut Özsu writing in the European journal of international law 19 (2008):

If rights are to retain their emancipatory edge in an age that is increasingly prone to couching its wars of retribution and occupation as necessary evils en route to the attainment of perpetual peace, a considerable measure of vigilance is required to keep them from being subsumed beneath the rubric of the new arsenal of governmental techniques with which the ‘post-9/11’ West has armed itself. After all, what presents itself as a bold acceptance of responsibility may, on closer inspection, prove to be substantially indistinguishable from accommodationist opportunism. Douzinas’ work is invaluable in this regard, laying the groundwork for a form of cosmopolitanism which neither clings unquestioningly to the humanitarian tradition nor permits itself to be captured by the machinery of an ostensibly mature and conscientious pragmatism. 

And for a genealogy of humanitarianism it’s hard to better Didier Fassin‘s monumental Humanitarian reason: a moral history of the present (University of California Press, 2011).  Trained successively in medicine, in public health and in social science in Paris, Fassin’s career spans a world of field investigations and social responsibilities, including service as Vice-President of the French National Committee on AIDS and Vice-President of Médecins Sans Frontières.  Fassin co-edited (with Mariella Pandolfi) an indispensable collection of essays, Contemporary states of emergency: the politics of military and humanitarian interventions (Zone, 2010), but Humanitarian reason is his magnum opus (in every sense of the word) – so far, at any rate.

If you don’t know his work, one of the best introductions is Fassin’s lecture on the Critique of Humanitarian Reason on 17 February 2010 at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton:

Humanitarianism, which can be defined as the introduction of moral sentiments into human affairs, is a major component of contemporary politics — locally and globally — for the relief of poverty or the management of disasters, in times of peace as well as in times of war. But how different is the world and our understanding of it when we mobilize compassion rather than justice, call for emotions instead of rights, consider inequality in terms of suffering, and violence in terms of trauma? What is gained — and lost — in this translation? In this lecture, Didier Fassin, James D. Wolfensohn Professor in the School of Social Science, attempts to comprehend humanitarian government, to make sense of its expansion, and to assess its ethical and political consequences.

And here he is:

For a detailed, thoughtful and compelling review of Humanitarian Reason see Steven Lukes, ‘The politics of sacred life’, in Public Books (August, 2012) here.  An extract:

The inequalities resulting from humanitarian government are, moreover, at work on the global scale, as evidenced by the contrast between refugees, gathered, protected, and assisted in huge camps in the South, and asylum seekers, subject in the North to decisions “parsimoniously made about which of them may be granted protection under the law.” For this to work the territorial and moral boundaries between the two worlds must be tightly sealed and policed, for example, “preventing refugees from the South from claiming the prerogatives granted to asylum seekers in the North.” As for the latter, if they are admitted, it is on humanitarian grounds rather than as of a right.

However, the heart of Fassin’s critique of humanitarian reason lies, not in the exposure of the disjunction between fantasy and harsh realities, but rather in the analysis of the ways in which humanitarian discourse functions to render this disjunction less visible and less troubling than it might otherwise be, thereby inhibiting possible effective practical and political interventions. Indeed, there is the suggestion here that moral discourse itself may serve to displace a more adequate understanding, deflecting attention from the deeper and wider sources of misery and suffering, thus rendering action to reduce them less feasible.

We need, Fassin writes, “to understand how this language has become established today as the most likely to generate support among listeners or readers, and to explain why people often prefer to speak about suffering and compassion than about interests or justice, legitimizing actions by declaring them to be humanitarian.” The social sciences are themselves part of this story, lending credit to the new political discourse by focusing on exclusion and misfortune, suffering and trauma, providing “the new lexicon of moral sentiments” that “has perceptible effects both in public action and in individual practices.” What, he asks, “ultimately, is gained, and what lost, when we use the terms of suffering to speak of inequality, when we invoke trauma rather than recognizing violence, when we give residence rights to foreigners with health problems but restrict the conditions for political asylum, more generally when we mobilize compassion rather than justice?”

4 thoughts on “The humanitarian present, humanitarian reason and imperialism

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