Humanitarian wars?

In Humanitarian Wars? Lies and Brainwashing, published in French as Guerre humanitaires? Mensonges et Intox (Textuel, 2018) Rony Brauman introduces us to an essential subject for humanity, regarding its own nature and its highest ends – humanitarianism.

But what is humanitarianism and how far humanitarianism as a higher end distances itself from “humanitarianism” as reducible and corrupted means?

In my view, this is the central point of this book and perhaps the answer lies in its own roots.

According to Brauman, historically, the idea of humanitarian intervention and lesser evil arose from the very battle field, from the necessity of distinguishing soldiers from non-combatants (the wounded and sick, the war prisoners and health care personnel) so that a minimum of dignity and humanity could be offered during the act of war, which later extended to war correspondents and civilians, to domestic conflicts and decolonization uprisings.

Red Cross truck in World War I – 1917

This honorable motivation,  however, does not exempt actions of humanitarian intervention and even their legislation from being intrinsically linked and almost invariably dependent on the logic of war, on the interests and the power that determine them.

Wars, many times fought in the name of this empathic abnegation, which are actually not truly justified by it, but through this pretext, disguised and hidden in their political and economic interests and power disputes.

Somalian civil war

Humanitarianism not rarely evoked by false numbers, miscalculations, disinformation and propaganda.

The art of war, which is also the cunning art of making it just, or rather making it look just, not necessarily through facts, but through language and communication – which includes manipulation of information, populist rhetoric and lots, lots of propaganda.

Nothing new there; brainwashing is part and parcel of modern warfare, so we’re on familiar ground. What strikes me, and concerns me is the warm reception that propaganda received or, put another way, the ease with which we still divide the world into civilized and barbarian, into ‘us’ and ‘them’.

pag 84 – Afghanistan and Iraq – two wars “for civilization”

By these ways, it is possible to endorse military interventions – the most varied in method, objective, and chances of success – not always legitimized by competent authorities, such as the United Nations Security Council, not always after the exhaustion of peaceful negotiation possibilities, not always respecting the peculiarities and sovereignty of the nations and populations involved.

A classic example being the so-called first humanitarian war, in Somalia, which proved itself partially mistaken, culminating in political loss for the UN, for the USA, in gratuitous, unnecessary violence and slaughter.

Somalia’s 1992 Thanksgiving.

The operation was not only based on misleading simplifications, sidelining Somali society, and false allegations; it was also given the grandiose task of “pacification” and rebuilding the state. Whatever one might think about the course events would have taken without this “humanitarian war”, which we obviously cannot know, one thing seems certain: that have been launched under such inauspicious circumstances, it couldn’t help failing. And in so doing, it made worse the very situation it hoped to improve.

pag 63 – Somalia – The first humanitarian war

Brauman brings up the case of Somalia and several other contemporary wars, fought in the name of an assumed greater good.

This book is beyond a philosophical discussion, it has the strength of a testimony, by someone deeply involved in a cause not considered lost, but extremely important to be idealized, romanticized or sublimated. Each paragraph leads us to a reflection and no line is lost in tergiversation.

Let’s just say that I practise my humanitarianism without being a believer! I think there’s excessive reverence for canon – sorry, humanitarian – law in the humanitarian world. Excessive in the sense that believing so strongly in its virtues can cloud our view of the power relationships at work in the real world, and that includes how the law is used.

For political forces in war, whether state or non-state actors, the threshold of what is tolerable depends on their interests.

More generally, how the power treats population will depend on how concerned (or not) it is about earning its goodwill. And it will moderate its brutality according to the importance it attaches to its international image.

Humanitarian law has not “civilized” war and I don’t think we should expect anything of that order. Therefore, in my opinion, we should be looking to political mobilization against wars, rather than to the law.

pags. 106, 107 – International Humanitarian Law – Legal pipe dream and the language of power

No read is obligatory, but some are indispensable – this great little book is one of them.

Rony Brauman on field in Ethiopia by Sebastião Salgado

The authors:

Rony Brauman is a doctor, specialized in tropical medicine and epidemiology, involved in humanitarian action since 1977; one of the first members and president of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – Doctors Without Borders – from 1982 to 1994, has been on numerous missions, mainly in contexts of armed conflicts and internally displaced people (IDP) situations. He also teaches at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) and has published several articles and some books on related topics, including “La Médecine Humanitaire” (PUF, 2010), “Penser dans l’urgence” (Editions du Seuil, 2006) and “Utopies Sanitaires” (Editions Le Pommier, 2000).

The interviewer, Régis Meyran, is a journalist and researcher with a PHD in social anthropology and ethnology.

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