Contemporary Humanitarian Space

Today, humanitarian aid organizations have complicated relationships with both the military and national governments, upon which many rely for protections, access, and funding. As Florence Nightingale predicted, the military and government rely on humanitarian organizations to take over where they leave off. Governments create humanitarian crises, and then aid organizations, under the watchful eye of state governments and their militaries, step in to manage them. National borders and humanitarian space operate as two sides of state sovereignty, propping each other up through a tense, often oppositional relationship. Challenges to state sovereignty continue to grow, whether from groups like ISIS and the Taliban, groups that operate beyond state sovereignty or in semisovereign states like Syria, on one hand, or from refugee crises and forced migration, on the other. So, too, challenges to humanitarian sovereignty from governments, militaries, and humanitarian organizations themselves have led to demands for independent humanitarian space, apart from any nation or political cause. On one side, we have state governments creating the very refugees that challenge their sovereignty, and on the other side, we have humanitarian aid organizations reproducing the force of law and carceral logics of state sovereignty within refugee camps. All the while, both nation-states and humanitarian spaces demand protection of their sovereign borders. Refugee camps, which have become semipermanent cities, supposedly operate independently of any national government and are cordoned off by walls, fences, and checkpoints. While humanitarian spaces are looking more like internment camps, the military is in the business of delivering humanitarian aid, and both operate in the service of humanitarian warfare based on the calculus of costs and benefits.

Historian Michael Barnett has identified three ages of humanitarianism: first, the civilizing Christian mission to uplift the fallen, particularly on the battlefields of Europe, by working independently yet in tandem with government forces; second, after World War II, aid agencies focused on a related mission of bringing development to the Third World to address an expanding conception of humanity and the forces of globalization, while struggling to carve out a neutral humanitarian space apart from politics. But, as Barnett (2013, 31) concludes, “it would prove painfully difficult to do, especially because aid agencies were increasingly dependent on states and international organizations for their funding. . . . In places like Biafra, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Ethiopia, aid agencies discovered that they were part of the war and pawns for combatants, struggling to figure out how close to get to politics without getting burned and how to deliver aid without unwittingly prolonging conflict or suffering.”

If the first phase of humanitarian aid is marked by politics posing as blind faith in the Christian civilizing mission, the post-Holocaust second phase is an eye-opening challenge to the naive assumption that the entire world wants an injection of Western democratic humanism along with its penicillin. The first humanitarians joined forces with the colonizing missions of the West, whereas the second phase involved the painful process of decolonialization played out by proxy in the Cold War, which left humanitarian groups wondering whose side they were on—and how it was possible to avoid taking sides in the first place.

Following World War II, as Allied governments divided up Axis territory, the struggle between the civilizing mission and the right to self-determination was playing out, not only in the former colonies, but also in the birth of the UN Charter signed by fifty countries in 1945, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ratified in 1948, and the Refugee Convention adopted six years later, in 1951. For example, immediately following the war, Western countries argued that the rules of extraterritoriality giving diplomatic immunity applied only to “semi-civilized countries” like China and Japan and not to “civilized nations” “whose sovereign rights,” in the words of literary historian Lydia Liu (2014, 391), “would not admit of such exceptionality as extraterritoriality without undermining the very idea of sovereignty.” At the same time, original drafts of the charter and universal declarations gave European nationals “special privileges in non-European settings so that European life, liberty, dignity, and property would be protected” (391).

The conflict between the Christian civilizing mission and universal human rights came to light in debates over the original UN Charter, especially when some signatories from European nations proposed excluding “uncivilized” and “non-self-governing” colonies from those granted human rights (Liu 2014, 389). Looking back at those debates, the irony is, as Liu puts it, that “Western democracies, mainly colonial powers, embraced cultural relativism, but it was rejected by the overwhelming majority of Third World nations who were staunch advocates of universalism” (396). The Declaration of Universal Human Rights, in the name of which international peacekeeping forces deploy military troops and humanitarian aid to bring Western humanitarian values to the rest of the globe, was actually imported. As Liu’s analysis shows, Western universal human rights as they operate in international law today were, in a significant sense, we might say, “made in China.” In other words, in its infancy, the Western actors involved in formulating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights exhibited the autoimmune logic Derrida associates with antidemocratic policies and practices, such as Homeland Security surveillance and the restriction of personal freedoms levied in the name of democracy—in the case of Homeland Security, limiting personal freedom and limiting universal human rights are carried out in the name of national sovereignty and citizen protection.

Tensions between state sovereignty and international law, human rights and self-determination, and relativism and universality were evident not only in the terms of the first UN debates but also in the performance of the debate, which took place, and continues to take place, in multiple languages in which human and rights mean different things, if they exist at all. Originally, the official languages of the UN were English and French, but soon were added Russian, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish. And today, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been translated into 389 languages (Liu 2014, 413). We could add problems of testimony and translation, singularity and repeatability, to this thorny nest in which contemporary human rights were born.

Barnett’s third and present phase of humanitarianism, dominated by human rights discourse, operates in uneasy tension with continued demands for apolitical humanitarian space and is as much about international security or protection as it is about medicine and food (Barnett 2013, 31). Humanitarian organizations have entered the business—and big business it is—of addressing the dangers of “failed states” in a global economy by targeting the causes of the collapse of state sovereignty, including poverty and civil war, the supposed breeding grounds for terrorism.[1] The war on terror has put humanitarian aid at the service of state sovereignty. Delivering food and medicine is part of a military strategy of bringing peace to a region so as to eliminate the terrorist threat at home. In other words, humanitarian space is essential to the war on terror, not only as part of a strategy to shore up the sovereign power of failed states and bring democracy to nations formerly controlled by despots but also to protect Western democracies by preventing the exportation of terrorism from these troubled regions.

If the second phase of humanitarianism was a demand for nongovernmental sovereign humanitarian space, the current phase involves humanitarian agencies working in conjunction with state agencies, including military forces, to replace “failed states” with democratic sovereign states and avoid the humanitarian fallout that leads to terrorism. Human rights are now defined in terms of self-determination for both individuals and states, even while universal human rights continue to be at odds with state sovereignty when it comes to refugees from those failed states that are considered threats to national security. In other words, both humanitarian aid and humanitarian warfare work to shore up state sovereignty through relief and military operations in “failed states” like Syria, on one hand, and by containing refugees from those states in camps at the borders of European nations, on the other. Humanitarian aid works with and against state sovereignty, claiming its own sovereignty as neutral, apolitical space, even while it continues to take sides, knowingly or unwittingly.

A deconstructive approach teaches us that we must continue to investigate the ways in which calls for neutral or apolitical space play into conflicts and violence and how sovereignty is always linked to the violence of might makes right, operating according to contradictory logic through which what threatens it is also what saves it, and vice versa. When the threats to it don’t destroy national sovereignty, they make it stronger, whether those threats are from international humanitarian organizations, international military forces, or terrorist groups and failed states.