Humanitarian Blues


Conor Foley, The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War, Verso, 2008.

PhotobucketAll is not well within the world of humanitarian aid organisations.  In his new book, The Thin Blue Line, Conor Foley, an experienced aid worker, discusses many of the problems associated with the burgeoning relationship between contemporary aid organisations and recent military and ‘peacekeeping’ interventions which have been conducted ostensibly for the purposes of ensuring human rights.  Foley’s book should be required reading for all those supporters of so-called humanitarian interventions, as he has many insightful critiques and anecdotes, both drawing upon his own wide experience but also upon other critical accounts.  At the heart of this often insightful book, however, lies a contradiction that Foley cannot overcome: on the one hand Foley wants to make a case for (limited and ‘neutral’) humanitarian aid, yet on the other hand, the events discussed within the book, and the problems associated with them, seem to point to the opposite conclusions to those he would like to reach.

Foley does not shy away from discussing the problematic effects of contemporary humanitarian interventions, discussing recent interventions in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.  In the case of the Kosovo intervention Foley argues against the orthodoxy that in Kosovo the Albanian population were being subjected to a campaign of ‘genocide’; rather, as Foley points out, in Kosovo there was a political problem about territory and sovereignty (p90).  The NATO intervention simply turned a counter-insurgency campaign that the Serbian government was waging against the paramilitary organisation the KLA into a full scale disaster.  He does not spare his fellow aid workers either, arguing that UNMIK was, in short, a disaster with little overall planning or control, incapable even of ensuring that the province’s electricity supply was restored (p88) whilst the staff were a mixed bag ranging from seconded civil servants to people who had simply turned up to Kosovo on speculation (p87).

Foley also discusses what can really only be described as the obscenity of bombing Afghanistan, an utterly impoverished state.  This was a state already so devastated by the previous decades of superpower-sponsored war that by the second day of bombing by the world’s most powerful states, US pilots were returning to their bases having failed to drop their bombs as there was simply nothing left to bomb (p95).  He describes also the bizarre spectacle in East Timor under the UN ‘peacekeeping force’ UNTAET, in which the budget for bottled water for UN staff was about half of the total budget for the new Timorese government (p142).

As well as detailed critiques, Foley also has some interesting broader political quarrels with contemporary interventions.  He points out that any kind of intervention tends to internationalise a conflict, so for example even straightforward aid can distort totally a local economy for the worse.  Furthermore, as Foley argues, there is a fundamental contradiction between intervention and any notion of self-determination.  Foley also draws attention to the strange spectacle of humanitarian organisations lecturing the citizens of poorer countries upon social and economic rights that not only could simply not be implemented due to the material circumstance of the state but that go far beyond what actually occurs in even the most liberal and wealthy societies.  He gives as an example a UNICEF lawyer lecturing social workers in Kosovo on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (p43).  Foley also argues that actually the impact of aid is often far less than we might like to think (p132-133) and that ultimately political solutions are the best ones.

So where did it all go wrong for humanitarian organisations?  For Foley, traditional neutral humanitarian organisations have been co-opted into what he terms political humanitarianism, a development that has serious implications both for the organisations themselves and more importantly for those on the receiving end.  Foley argues that his shift began in the 1990s, when many aid organisations were increasingly co-opted into the political agendas of powerful states, whilst organisations such as the ICRC, which mostly sought to remain apart from this trend, were increasingly vilified.  For Foley this reached its apex under the post-9/11 Bush administration, which showed an utter disregard for international law.  For Foley, Afghanistan was where military and humanitarian mandates became indistinguishable — aid workers became part of the front line in a global war waged by the Bush administration and assisted by Britain.

I am not sure to what extent Foley’s argument that traditional neutral humanitarian organisations have been hijacked and co-opted into other people’s political agendas tells quite the whole story.  From Foley’s own illustrations, it would seem that many organisations were very willing participants.  First in the roll call of shame must be Oxfam, actually calling for the bombing of Serbia and resisting pressure from Belgrade staff to condemn the bombing of civilian targets (p159-160); however, let us not leave out CARE calling for military intervention in Somalia (p161).

Moreover, it is unclear why Foley singles out the Bush administration when, as he himself so well demonstrated, political humanitarianism (as he calls it) emerged in the 1990s.  So, bizarrely it seems to this reviewer, Foley ends up arguing, despite his intelligent critique of interventions in the 1990s, that Blair’s liberal internationalism presupposed the existence of an international rules-based system, which was then undermined by Bush (p228).  Yet it is really Kosovo that marked the high point (or low point) of political humanitarianism, for example the downgrading of sovereignty; the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq simply followed in the path already established by the liberal internationalist governments of Blair and Clinton in the 1990s.  There was some kind of ‘international rules based system’ before that, and it was premised upon the formal presumptions of sovereign equality and non-intervention as codified in the UN Charter, precisely the presumptions that liberal internationalism has sought to erode.

Despite Foley’s criticisms of what he terms political humanitarianism, he is none the less sympathetic to the frustrations and limitations of traditional ‘neutral’ humanitarian aid, and believes there is a case to be made for active humanitarian organisations and, in certain circumstances, a moral case for intervention (p151).  So is it possible to steer between the Scylla of indifference and the Charybdis of political humanitarianism?  For Foley the answer is yes, and that solution is to be found in developing international law and increasing what he calls ‘humanitarian accountability’ (p200).

For Foley, the International Criminal Court (p175) is a potentially positive step in the right direction, representing the potential for universal justice.  At the moment, he argues, there are practical problems with the implementation of universal justice through the mechanisms of the ICC (p177), such as American refusal to ratify it, leading to accusations of double standards.  Foley also argues that the ad hoc criminal tribunals established after Bosnia and Rwanda also represent positive steps in the right direction, going so far as to say that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) represents a system of justice far superior to that of a national court.  Foley also praises the ad hoc tribunal set up for Sierra Leone (SCSL), arguing that it is a positive feature of this court that it applies international rather than domestic law and that this means that the court is safeguarded from domestic pressures (p193).

In fact as John Laughland has shown in his excellent book on the ICTY, the new ad hoc criminal courts are more or less utter travesties of justice, and the kind of institutions that would have surely have made even Stalin blush.  Furthermore, given Foley’s identification of the anti-democratic aspects of political humanitarianism, it seems odd that he can then argue that it is actually a positive thing that a court applies international rather than domestic law and is actually insulated from the society over which it presides.

Given the many important problems that Foley has raised about other aspects of intervention, it is unclear why he believes that the ICC could genuinely be a mechanism for universal justice and, more importantly, that universal justice could exist in a divided world.  Domestic law has many limitations: as Anatole France wrote, the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread; formal equality masks real substantive inequality, and the parameters are set (defence of property for example).  Compared to international law, however, even existing domestic legal systems are paragons of justice and fairness, as at least within certain narrow parameters we can all have recourse to some sort of system of redress or enforcement of agreements (for example).  International law consists of treaties between states, there is no mechanism of enforcement, international law rests upon the political will of states.  As such it is subject to all the limitations of political humanitarianism and more.

The same problem is to be found in Foley’s argument for increasing humanitarian accountability.  Of course aid agencies are not accountable to the people they supposedly serve (p205) and as Foley points out, various schemes involving consultation are by no means the same thing as proper accountability.  The problem is that this is not a problem that can be resolved in the absence of a transformation of power relations in the world; as Foley himself argues, the problem is the political problem of power differentials (p204).

Tara McCormack is a lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester.  This article was published by Culture Wars on 13 March 2009 under a Creative Commons lisence.