Is humanitarianism being hijacked?

Peace & Security03 Jun 2011David Sogge

This is a contribution to a 2011 online blog called ‘Innovating Humanitarianism’

Humanitarianism today is faced with many challenges. On 2-5 June 2011, the Second World Conference on Humanitarian Studies (WCHS) brought together the best of thinkers and researchers to discuss urgent questions about the changing nature of current crises and how humanitarian policy and practice can best respond to this.

The Broker hosted this conference blog, which was run by Sean Lowrie and Marieke Hounjet of the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies. Contributions are welcome: mail Marieke Hounjet.

The WCHS conference is organized by the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) and hosted by Tufts University, Medford, in collaboration with Harvard University, Columbia University and the Social Science Research Council.

I wonder if, at a conference dedicated to humanitarianism, there may be any sense of alarm about how the term is being employed these days. In Libya for example, a great many civilians have recently lost their lives or endured terrible suffering because of geopolitical decisions taken in the name of humanitarian principles to protect civilians. The same decision-makers have meanwhile shown little interest and no creativity in pursuing non-lethal political ways to end a political crisis.

The Libyan case is not so very different from that of Afghanistan and other places where humanitarian principles are wheeled out to justify a lot of killing and suffering, in conflicts perpetuated, and political remedies rejected, over many years and embracing whole countries and regions. We’ve entered an epoch, it seems, of endless and expanding war, advertised and sold as ways to promote humanitarian principles.

The harnessing of humanitarian agencies to aggressive military operations has long been an issue, but are humanitarian principles themselves now being hijacked? It would be interesting to know in any case how those gathered at the conference in Boston are grappling with that paradox.

David Sogge is an independent researcher based in Amsterdam.