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Human Rights Quarterly 23.3 (2001) 678-700

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The Road to Military Humanitarianism: How the Human Rights NGOs Shaped A New Humanitarian Agenda

David Chandler

I. Introduction

The transformation of humanitarianism from the margins to the center of the international policy agenda has been achieved through the redefinition of humanitarian policy and practice and its integration within the fast-growing agenda of human rights. The new international discourse of human rights activism no longer separates the spheres of strategic state and international aid from humanitarianism, but attempts to integrate the two under the rubric of "ethical" or "moral" foreign policy. As the humanitarian NGOs have been integrated into policymaking forums, the policymakers have increasingly claimed to be guided by humanitarian principles.

The human rights NGOs, in conjunction with governments and international institutions, have established a rights-based "new humanitarian" consensus, which has succeeded in redefining humanitarian policy. The universal principles, which defined the early humanitarian internationalists, are now widely criticized by their NGO successors as the language of universal humanitarianism has been reworked to pursue human rights ends. The "new humanitarians" assert that their ambitious strategic ends inevitably clash with their earlier principles, which developed in an age when it was necessary to obtain the consent from states, in which they operated, and the opportunities for more long-term involvement were limited. Today, not only is this more interventionist approach seen as a legitimate response [End Page 678] to humanitarian crises in non-Western states, it is increasingly understood to be nonpolitical and ethically driven.

This paper is concerned with the process through which the core ethics of humanitarianism have been transformed, focusing on the shift in the politics of humanitarian interventionism as advocated by nongovernmental organizations during and after the Cold War. It considers the nonpolitical approach of traditional humanitarian organizations and the development of more politicized human rights-based humanitarian NGOs, it further analyzes some of the consequences of this change, the retreat from the principles of neutrality and universalism, and the development of "military humanitarianism."

II. Humanitarian Universalism

The organization that over the last century has most epitomized the values of humanitarian universalism has been the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC or Red Cross). 1 The Red Cross established that humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and universality were the underlying principles of any humanitarian intervention. The principle of humanity was based on the desire to assist the wounded and suffering without discrimination, recognizing a common humanity, and that "our enemies are men." The principle of impartiality derived from the desire to assist without discrimination except on the basis of needs, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress. The principle of neutrality bound Red Cross workers from taking sides in conflict or engaging in political or social controversies. The principle of universality claimed that the ICRC approach was the same the world over on the basis that the humanitarian values were shared universally. These four principles were predicated on separating the humanitarian sphere from the political one. 2 The avoidance of politics was essential to the definition of humanitarianism. Cornelio Sommaruga, President of the ICRC, in his speech to the UN General Assembly, in November 1992, made this clear: "'[h]umanitarian endeavour and political action must go their separate ways if the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian work are not to be jeopardized.'" 3 Jean Pictet, one of the ICRC's leading thinkers warned that "'Red Cross institutions must beware of politics as they would of poison, for it threatens their [End Page 679] very lives.'" 4 As Michael Ignatieff notes, humanitarianism was the core of the ICRC's nonpolitical outlook: "[i]t makes no distinction between good wars and bad, between just and unjust causes, or even between aggressors and innocents." 5

Amnesty International, founded in 1961 with the aim of working for the release of "prisoners of conscience," similarly pursued a universal campaign for the rights of political prisoners, regardless of whether they were persecuted by US or Soviet backed regimes. 6 The politics of the prisoners...


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