Humanitarianism: Duct-Tape on a Leaking Pipe (May 7th, 2018)

Humanitarianism both builds on and detracts from the human rights movement. It can provide relief to those suffering, but its apolitical state allows for problems to be managed rather than solved. Some people use humanitarian laws to gain rights and resources when human right laws are absent, but the inevitable merging of humanitarianism and politics results in more structural violence against those already suffering. While aid benefits those who are in desperate need of it, the evasion of the historical context in which these crises arise undermines the ability for suffering communities to liberate themselves. Transnational medical and humanitarian reason bring tangible responses to situations devoid of institutionalized human rights, yet when employed as a permanent solution, they create a division between saviors providing aid and victims receiving it, and in efforts to remain outside the political sphere, humanitarianism ultimately ignores the underlying causes while reasserting existing power dynamics.

Humanitarianism has its benefits, as many around the world suffering from political violence or natural disasters receive aid from humanitarian organizations. Transnational medical organizations provide much needed services such as training, education, and assistance in places without adequate access to healthcare and education. Many humanitarian efforts are direct responses to war and others specifically manage the conditions for refugees and displaced people across the globe. Humanitarianism has evolved from a traditionally charitable practice into a legal arena, yet remains rooted in compassion. While a considerable percentage of the aid is focused on saving lives, “the laws of war that form the heart of international humanitarian law are as much about regulating death as promoting life” (Feldman 2012: 157). Many humanitarian laws, such as the “illness clause” in France, merely allow for a small percentage to gain access to the resources needed to survive.

The humanitarian clause, or “illness clause,” in France grants undocumented immigrants (sans papiers) the ability to stay in France and receive treatment for injuries or diseases. This law gives people both the opportunity to avoid deportation and access to sufficient medical care. The law was passed so that sans papiers could claim their right to basic necessities such as healthcare when treatment was unavailable in their home countries (Ticktin, 2006: 35). While the clause is not pristinely executed, resulting in numerous ways of sacrificing one’s bodily integrity, it does provide opportunities to those otherwise barred from crossing borders. It also redistributes political power to the medical field, where decisions in determining not only access to immigration, but the definition of those included within the term “humanity”, has become largely based on compassion. Yet, the culture of humanitarianism continuously results in the obligation to help those in suffering and can lead to demands for rights.

In the case of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, specifically those displaced from Palestine and then Gaza, there have been demands for humanitarian rights granting the refugees rights to health insurance, government jobs, and property. While these rights coincide with political and civic rights, as they would gain a national identity number from the Jordanian government, they are still based on humanitarian concern as they remain refugees rather than citizens. Many of the Palestinian refugees still seek to return home, but as they have been displaced for over forty years, they are suffering from their permanent state of displacement and marginality within the humanitarian condition. A former UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) employee stated: “Our problem is created by the international community and they are responsible for solving it” (Feldman 2012: 164). The Palestinian refugees here seek assistance from those responsible for their predicament, and state it is their humanitarian right. Yet, as they base their existence within the framework of humanitarianism rather than as a political and national entity that holds rights to the land, they remain distinguished as victims and thus have remained in a state of the humanitarian condition for almost seventy years.

The Palestinian community has been in a state of displacement and under the status of refugees since 1948. When the UN first established the UNRWA, they provided “rations, clothing, shelter, education, healthcare, and some job training to registered Palestinians” but assistance has dwindled over the long period of time. After 1982, only those regarded as “special hardship cases” received support, although only in restricted amounts. Large scale settlement solutions have been abandoned and smaller-scale projects now even rely on refugee labor. Refugee camps have become inconspicuous within Jordan’s border and have lasted long past the “crisis” becoming a “condition” (Feldman 2012: 159-160). The passage of time has become apparent in the perception of refugee life based on distinction rather than assistance within the generations of Palestinians. Efforts have changed from disaster relief to societal development, but remain apolitical as the refugees are victims rather than full subjects with rights to land and nationality. Humanitarianism allows for Palestinians to receive aid and maintain their humanity with almost no regard to their citizenship.

Returning to France’s illness clause, we find a similar problem between humanitarianism and the merging of compassion and political consequences. While the humanitarian clause gives access to healthcare to those afflicted with diseases, it also results in the sacrifice of bodily integrity by those who either have access to it or want access to it. In order to remain in France, some sans papiers will purposefully infect themselves, or once they are approved to stay, will refuse to treat their illnesses in order to extend their stays. Some even refuse to get treated as the diagnosis will forever mark them within their own communities. Medical professionals even admit that they hope some of the immigrants are sick so that they can grant them access to treatments and avoid deportation. Without definitive criteria for what constitutes sans papiers from gaining papers from the illness clause, the decision is left to compassion from the medical field. Yet, humanitarian reasoning is thought to remain “apolitical” despite its clear effects on political issues. Even when sans papiers receive papers to stay, they rarely are granted permission to work outside of industries exploiting their labor. Without proper work, they cannot afford shelter or resources to create lives for themselves. They are granted access to humanity as victims of disease, but not citizenship to the country. (Ticktin 2006: 33-39). Without political rights, the humanitarian relief only leads to more violence. 

Didier Fassin discusses the relationship between politics and humanitarianism in his chapter “Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life” from Politics of Life:

“A common interpretation of this new situation tends to distinguish and to contrast politics and humanitarianism, declaring that the latter is gradually replacing the former or even announcing the advent of humanitarianism and the end of politics… In fact everything suggests that rather than become separate, humanitarianism and politics are tending to merge” (Fassin 2007: 509). 

Fassin goes on to quote a president of Médecins sans frontieres (MSF), also known as Doctors without Borders, as saying that humanitarian relief often seeks to provide somebody with the possibility of dying the means to survive. Yet, who decides who receives the resources? The act of providing relief to a select few is political in itself, as it reaffirms the existing power structures between those trying to survive and those with the means to assist in the survival. Even within the humanitarian communities, Western expatriates are deemed more valuable in kidnapping situations while nationals are more than often murdered. Despite trying to exist outside of a political sphere, humanitarianism creates its own political sphere of victims and saviors, almost always painting the developed nation-states as the benevolent liberators of people born into the wrong place and time without the resources to do it themselves. Yet perhaps their situations are not created from accidents but rather are the consequences of historical contexts involving the international community.

The effects of colonialism and neo-colonialism have yet to be rectified, and the majority of discontent can be directly linked to operations and agendas from the West. Currently, Western militaries continuously reason their exploits as humanitarian efforts. Yet in almost every case of Western military intervention, the act of saving the lives of a suffering people is still not equivalent to the death of one soldier. Hundreds and thousands of civilians in Iraq were murdered in an effort to overthrow the dictator Saddam Hussein. Those that needed saving from the regime were instead subjected to the same bombardment by the United States’ and United Kingdom’s militaries in an effort to defeat the enemy. The intervention not only failed to liberate all of these people, but took their lives without even taking into consideration their losses as equal to the loss of about one hundred soldiers. While the MSF’s decision to remain in Iraq during the bombings led to a feeling of equality between the lives of those subjected to the bombs and those who sacrificed themselves to be there, until two of the MSF members were kidnapped for over a week before being returned and pulled out of Iraq, thus cementing the value of lives between those who chose to be there and could leave, and those who had no choice but to remain (Fassin 2007: 513). Humanitarian reasoning by Western militaries has resulted in the demand for more humanitarian aid in order to amend the injustice caused by the wars. This solidifies the already existing notion that the West must save the developing world, despite the West creating most of the issues that are faced in these areas. Overlooking the exploitation of humanitarian reasoning by the militaries has allowed for the continuing neglect of the underlying causes for many of the situations that require the humanitarian relief. 

Another case of political violence resulting in the demand for humanitarian aid is Haiti during and after the string of violent dictatorships. Paul Farmer writes of the AIDS and military violence he witness while in Haiti in his book Pathologies of Power, he states that “the social and economic forces that have helped to shape the AIDS epidemic are, in every sense, the same forces” that allow for military violence against impoverished citizens (Farmer 2005: 40). Farmer suggests that in order to properly analyze the structural violence and suffering found in Haiti, one must look at the entire globe and the power structures that exist and have existed within it. The analysis must also look at historical context and social factors as well, as they have had an effect on the situation. It is not surprising the United States helped to create the Haitian army in 1914, resulting in soldiers being very few of the salaried employees in rural communities assuming power over the peasantry, especially women. Farmer declares that one cannot retain civil rights if social and economic rights are not regarded as equally important. The structural violence that has existed not only in Haiti but throughout the developing world and in the lowest classes of developed countries must be investigated and reformed if we wish to live in a truly realized society. 

Humanitarianism, while beneficial, does not target the structural violence at play. Rather, it seeks to mend the problems created by our global economy and the inequality that it thrives on. It is similar to that of putting duct-tape on a leaking pipe rather than replacing the pipe or attempting to fix the leak. It is based on the charitability of those who wield power giving them even more power in the decision of who is worth saving. While some of it results in legal obligation, as seen as Palestinians living in Jordan, most of the time the mere act of humanitarian relief is thought to be a gift, as “there is no greater gift than that of one’s own life (Fassin 2007: 512). Humanitarianism can benefit the human rights movement in regard to taking action, as human rights are often trapped in an intangible legal dimension with no real capacity to implement themselves. Yet, all of the aid in the world cannot guarantee a dignified life in a nation-state that does not enforce the human rights doctrines. Humanitarianism seeks to save lives, while human rights on the other hand seeks to establish legislation guaranteeing a standard for what a human life entails. 

Human rights seek to change the way things so that harm will not occur again rather than repair harm that has already been done. As Jack Donnelly writes in Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, “Rights empower, not just benefit, those who hold them” (Donnelly 2003: 8). They are based on the idea that everyone has equal and inalienable rights on the basis of being a human being, rather than being entitled to assistance because they are victims of a situation. It is not about providing aid in times of crises, but providing people all over the globe the same rights in order to lead dignified lives. Unlike humanitarian efforts, it is not about saving human lives, but deeming all human lives equal. While humanitarianism acts within a framework of Western exploitation and heroics, human rights is about giving every single human being the right to their own life, free of suffering. Humanitarianism can relieve suffering, but it does not aim to eliminate it, as it does not address any of the contextual problems that create the suffering. Human rights does not act as though it is outside of the political framework, although the movement is unable to accomplish certain things that humanitarianism is able to do by claiming its status as apolitical. Human rights challenge the existing societal structure, while humanitarianism assists individuals within the structure. The charitable background of humanitarianism means that it will always be based on the power of one to give aid to one with no power who can only receive the aid, contrary to human rights that seeks to put everyone on the same plane.

While humanitarianism has its benefits, that is all it has. Human rights were created to empower those suffering to liberate themselves from their suffering, while humanitarianism can only provide relief to those suffering from those with privileges of not existing within the suffering communities. Humanitarianism is important in the short term, as aid is needed in places suffering from natural disasters and wartime violence, but it has detrimental effects when united with politics as a long-term solution. While human rights can use the additional help from humanitarian efforts in helping to relieve suffering, human rights must prevail as humanitarianism reinforces the idea between savior and victim, and those suffering must be given the resources and knowledge to liberate themselves from the cycle of violence perpetrated by the same people offering aid.

Works Cited

Donnelly, Jack. 2003. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. Ithaca, N.Y. ; London: Cornell University Press. Chapters 1 and 2.

Farmer, Paul. 2005. Pathologies of Power : Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. Berkeley; London: University of California Press. pp. 1-50. 

Fassin, Didier. 2007. “Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life” Public Culture. 19 (3): 499-520.

Feldman, Ilana. 2012. “The Humanitarian Condition: Palestinian Refugees and the Politics of Living.” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism & Development 3 (2): 155-172.

Ticktin, Miriam. 2006. “Where Ethics and Politics Meet: The Violence of Humanitarianism in France” American Ethnologist 33 (1): 33-49.

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