restricted access Humanitarianism’s Age of Reason
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Humanitarianism’s Age of Reason Ghassan Salamé IN POST-CONFLICT SITUATIONS, the first challenge is to identify the sequence of events preceding conflict resolution, and how you classify what has apparently ended is of utmost importance. Was it really a conflict ? Then, what kind of conflict was it? An international police operation , a foreign aggression, a regional war, a civil war, a state collapse, all of the above, none of the above? Depending on the answers to these questions, humanitarian conditions, popular perceptions, and the kind of post-conflict settlement one should work to devise and implement are substantially different in each case. The Germans at the end of World War II were in a completely different mind set than, say, the Somalis after the collapse of President Siad Barre’s regime in 1991. Both cases could equally qualify as post-conflict situations; actual needs and perceptions were, however, extremely different in an industrialized country, the epicenter of a world war, from what they were in a marginal underdeveloped one, torn apart by small armed gangs. One of the most common misunderstandings that confound post-conflict resolution is perspective: How do humanitarian agencies assess postconflict situations versus how do the nationals describe what they have been going through? We think our interlocutors are coming out of a civil war while they view themselves as victims of a foreign aggression; or we think they are happy because a dictatorship has fallen while they complain about the collapse of a reassuring order. We are compassionate with their past sufferings, but they seem happy to have won their battle against some enemy group. We are motivated by the immediate past, but they have a better, deeper, somehow obsessive, grasp of history. And, looking for immediate remedies to pressing problems, we easily cahill.qxp 10/1/2004 1:36 PM Page 81 become fed up with history, while our interlocutors seem to have made of it their single, possessive, teacher! Hence one of the most immediate and unnerving challenges one faces, paradoxically, deals more with the past than with the future: How far in history must we walk back and which lessons should we draw, and for what use, today and tomorrow? The easiest answer I hear is “let bygones be bygones, we are here to help you build another, brighter, future.” Although such a stand is politically correct and definitely pragmatic, individuals and groups may think you despise their past, because you do not want to take it into consideration. Especially following civil wars, where to start in your narrative is crucial because at some point one group was dominating the other, before having the latter take revenge. Once, in 1975, while visiting a small Christian village in a mainly Druze area in Mount Lebanon where the people were being asked to avoid buying arms and to eschew any kind of military confrontation with their (more numerous and better equipped) neighbors, I was told: “Last time we did not arm ourselves and we lost 17 victims.” “When was that?” I asked. A chorus of village dwellers replied, “In 1860!” Given the above information, three attitudes are thus possible for humanitarian agencies to assume. One can consciously or unconsciously listen too much to one party and end up adopting its narrative; this happens more often than not. In fact, I have encountered dozens of peacekeepers and humanitarian activists who are sometimes consciously, and at other times unconsciously, pure partisans of one party, repeating its narrative without restraint. This is a recipe for disaster that strips us of our credibility and makes us a party to the conflict. The second, opposite , attitude is to ignore the past, and concentrate on the future by basically telling your interlocutors: “Your past is your property, you deal with it as you wish, we are here to help you build your future.” This is certainly a more prudent stand, but somehow naïve (in view of the groups’ attachment to and pride in their own past) and somehow patronizing (“We are modern and you indulge in archaism.”). The third and best attitude, in my view, though the most difficult as well, is to be as knowledgeable as possible about the past. Making the effort to comprehend the history of the conflict sends a clear message that we really care about them, that we are able not only to listen, but able to develop solutions 82 HUMAN SECURITY FOR ALL cahill.qxp 10/1/2004 1:36 PM Page 82...