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The trouble with humanitarianism.

In the wake of Israel’s sanguinary assault on the MV Mavi Marmara, much of the debate has focused on the question of whether those aboard the Free Gaza flotilla were humanitarians, peace activists, or Hamas supporters. The benign, and, crucially, the depoliticized interpretation was that they were humanitarians bringing aid to a besieged people desperately in need of it. This view was encapsulated in a cartoon that ran in Le Monde two days after the event—it showed a tiny boat populated by stick figures who had their hands raised above their heads and were surrounded by gigantic rifle barrels pointing down at them. The caption had only one word: “Humanitarians.” On the other side of the ledger, the conservative columnist, Christopher Caldwell, wrote in the Financial Times that, the participants aboard the Mavi Marmara had not only a humanitarian motive but a military one--to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza—and, because of that, had in effect become parties to the conflict and, as such, entirely appropriate targets for the Israeli military.

Both of these viewpoints are strangely binary, and, in consequence, occlude more than they reveal. Self-evidently, to speak of Free Gaza’s mission as purely humanitarian is absurd, as the movement’s leader, Greta Berlin, and celebrities on board the Mavi Marmara like the Swedish writer, Henning Mankell, who have written about the event since, make clear. One does not have to agree with Caldwell’s claim that the flotilla was engaged in a military mission to believe that it was engaged in a political one. At the same time, to assert that the humanitarian component was somehow a flag of convenience for a political end, as Israel’s supporters have tended to imply, is to miss the point about what humanitarian action has become, and, perhaps, what it has already been for a long time.

Viewed coldly, and without partisanship, the Free Gaza flotilla represents not just a significant event in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but an extraordinary victory for an idea that has been talked about ad nauseam, but actually rarely put into practice so successfully—the ability of non-state actors not themselves military formations (Caldwell should go back and read his international humanitarian law on proportionality in war) to influence political outcomes in conflict zones. Before the attack on the Mavi Marmara, there was no movement whether from the Israeli side or from Egypt towards modifying the blockade and no serious pressure from major external actors, above all the United States, on the two countries to do so. But today, Egypt has opened its border with Gaza, Prime Minister Netanyahu himself is talking about the need to rethink the blockade, and, whatever they say in public, and whatever they block in the UN Security Council, the Obama administration is pressurizing the Israelis to do just that.

But these ramifications for the Palestinians, for Israel, and for the neighboring countries are only part of the story. Like it or not, the success of the Free Gaza flotilla (or, to put it another way, Israel’s Pyrrhic victory) represents the coming to fruition of the idea of the non-governmental organizations as central players in global geopolitics. And that is where humanitarianism comes in. For one of the central ideas of the modern humanitarian movement, with the exception of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and, at least during the past two decades, the French section of Doctors Without Borders, has been to insist that national sovereignty simply could not be used by states to behave as they wished toward either their own citizens or, as is the case in Gaza, populations they judge to be hostile and who are under their control.

It was Bernard Kouchner, a founder of Doctors Without Borders (though despite what he sometimes implies, he was forced out of the organization decades ago), who wrote of a right of intervention that needed to be added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Like many of his close collaborators, including Bernard-Henri Levy and Andre Glucksmann, Kouchner has largely been a supporter of Israel. But consider his words, written in 1987, as a preface to a book on the right to intervention, in the light of the Free Gaza flotilla. We, in the outside world, he writes, should not accept that we cannot intervene to help people in need “on the basis of state sovereignty, and a nation’s ‘ownership’ of the sufferings [of its people].” And Kouchner writes that the fact that the relevant authorities forbid such non-state interventions (we are back to Caldwell again) must not be allowed to trump either need or morality.

In the same volume, Andre Glucksmann wrote presciently that (non-governmental) humanitarian intervention has been “steadily developing an enormous power.” He and Kouchner were right, just not in the way they intended, or, perhaps, even envisaged. Indeed, in terms of the history of humanitarian intervention, the Free Gaza flotilla is a perfectly logical extension of Kouchner’s “Boat for Vietnam” project, launched in 1979 at the time of the exodus of the “boat people,” or the pro-South Sudan or pro-Darfur human activists that have time and again illegally crossed into Sudan in violation of, pace Caldwell and those who have been arguing in a similar vein, the Government of Sudan’s legal right to deny them entry into a war zone. Indeed, the whole point of humanitarian intervention was precisely that NGOs and civil society had both a right and an obligation to respond with acts of aid and solidarity to people in need or being subjected to repression or want by the forces that controlled them, whatever the governments concerned might think about the matter.

Of course, when Kouchner, Glucksmann, Levy, the Italian legal scholar, Mario Bettati, and their colleagues were elaborating the right to intervention, they imagined that it would somehow only apply to totalitarian states—a point that Levy made indignantly in a recent piece in Liberation defending Israel against the criticisms leveled at it since the killings aboard the Mavi Marmara. But leaving aside entirely the fact that the Free Gaza activists do believe Israel to be an apartheid state, the general, non-Middle East centered point that needs to be made is that it was never realistic to imagine that humanitarian intervention could somehow remain the exclusive property of the West, anymore than state power in the 21st century will be a nearly exclusively Western monopoly. Indeed, in retrospect, it was utter folly to think so—or, more accurately, not think through what humanitarian action in a multi-polar world would actually look like.

And just as organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, however embryonic, give us a sense of what that multi-polar world will look like (Brazilian’s new assertiveness, often, as in the case of Iran, in defiance of the wishes of the U.S., is another example of this), so the version of humanitarian intervention practiced by Islamic charities like the Turkish-based IHH, that, precisely, sympathize with Hamas and have links with Sheikh Yusef Al Qaradawi’s wing of the Muslm Brotherhood is a harbinger of one version of non-governmental humanitarian action likely to play a leading role in the coming decades. That is not an opinion; it’s a fact. Of course, Western governments may decide, in response, that the old Westphalian system of absolute state sovereignty wasn’t as bad as they said it was, after all, and that we don’t in fact need what Michael Ignatieff once called “the revolution of moral concern” that was leading us into a post-Westphalian era. But even if they did this, which seems unlikely given that the real moral warrant for globalization has for some time been human rights and democratization, the truth remains that it is impossible to stop this new version of humanitarian action—highly partisan, highly political—from going forward, even if, by the canons of classical humanitarianism, it is something of a misnomer.

Again, what is new about that is not that the IHH is supported and perhaps even egged-on by the Turkish state, or at the very least by senior figures in Prime Minister Erdogan’s AKP party. Most of the major quote-unquote independent relief NGOs in the U.S. and Western Europe survive largely on government grants or on UN funds that themselves come from rich donor governments. Bernard Kouchner himself went from being the leader of a private relief group, to deputy minister of health to foreign minister. And during the Blair and Brown governments in the UK there was a virtual revolving door between the British development ministry, DFID, and the private NGO, Oxfam. And government funding, as anyone who knows the first thing about how NGOs actually function, implies a measure of government control over where and how NGOs operate. In the particular case of U.S. NGOs, the situation has been one of almost complete dependency on government going back to Vietnam days. And today, in Afghanistan, the so-called provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) are a collaboration between the military, civilian branches of the American government, and NGOs.

The central point is that with the exception of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and, to some extent, the French section of Doctors Without Borders, humanitarian action has always had political goals. Kouchner and the other so-called “French doctors” in Biafra were not neutral: they supported Biafran secession, whether they entirely owned up to the fact or not. Did they honor the blockade, as pro-Israel polemicists like Caldwell claim Free Gaza was obligated to do lest they become legitimate military targets? They most certainly did not. Nor did NGOs that helped the Mujehedin in Afghanistan during the war against the Russians, to name only the most obvious of many other examples. But no one in Western Europe or North America seems to have thought through what would happen if Muslim relief groups, who are as much creatures of donor governments as their Western counterparts, but no more so, did the same thing.

It sounded good to Western ears when at the time of the Bosnian war, Sadako Ogata, then the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, said that “there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.” She was right, which is in fact why I have always been a humanitarian fundamentalist, rejecting the “human rightsist” view of humanitarian action that sees relief work as a context for human rights, democracy building, and the like, and instead holding out for a more modest humanitarian ideal that seeks to palliate not to transform. But many of the same people who complain about Free Gaza’s lack of neutrality today were all for this interventionist, political idea of humanitarianism … that is, when it didn’t strike so close to home. Of course, we should all be allowed to change our minds. What is impermissible, however, is to pretend we have not done so.

David Rieff is the author of eight books including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.

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