hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Retreat from Humanitarianism


Alphen, Netherlands. 19 August. Today is World Humanitarian Day.  The event commemorates the 19 August 2003 bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad.  Among the dead was the UN’s top envoy Sergio Viera de Mello with whom I had spent a day in Geneva shortly before he left for Iraq.  Last week UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon published a report on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) entitled “Fulfilling our Collective Responsibility: International Assistance and the Responsibility to Protect”.  With American and British forces active again in Iraq on the face of it R2P and humanitarianism are alive and well.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Firstly, humanitarianism was essentially a European idea in which Europeans did not invest.  In April 1999 then British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a famous speech in Chicago which laid the groundwork for humanitarianism and the merging of values with interests – the Doctrine of the Value-Interest.  Blair said, “No longer is our existence as states under threat. Now our actions are guided by a more subtle blend of mutual self-interest and moral purpose in defending the values we cherish. In the end values and interests merge. If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society then that is in our national interests too. The spread of our values makes us safer. As John Kennedy put it “Freedom is indivisible and when one man is enslaved who is free?”  That was then and this is now.

Today, the idea of humanitarianism looks like yesterday’s idea, precisely because it is so closely associated with Tony Blair and his ilk – yesterday’s man, yesterday’s idea.  Indeed, in the soon-to-be wake of Afghanistan humanitarianism looks to austerity-mired Europeans like a recipe for the endless engagement of small, ill-equipped and under-funded military forces in dangerous, difficult and costly places in pursuit of ill-defined goals made more unclear by empty political rhetoric. 

Secondly, without the support of the US humanitarianism became just yet more empty European political prose. Indeed, the failures in both Afghanistan and Iraq and NATO’s retreat from certainty were caused in no small part by the confusion of values with interests by America and its European allies which made planning virtually impossible.  The specific US aim to engage in Afghanistan was to deny Al Qaeda the use of an ungoverned space from which to launch attacks such as 911.  However, in a desperate bid to build a broad coalition the aim morphed into turning Afghanistan into a functioning democracy built on the European principle that when European forces must leave a place far better off than the day they arrived.

Thirdly, 1999 was also the high-water mark of Western power.  On 12 June 1999 Milosevic began his withdrawal from Kosovo and the tragic Wars of the Yugoslav succession came to an end in which over 140,000 people had been slaughtered and 4 million displaced. It seemed for a moment that the Doctrine of the Value-Interest would know no bounds.  Indeed, emboldened by a successful 2000 military intervention in Sierra Leone Tony Blair became the High Priest of Humanitarianism.  

And yet over the horizon first China and then Russia were re-emerging as powers with a much narrower concept of the national interest.  In 2013 the West’s inability to intervene in Syria’s tragedy was partly a function of this power-shift and the new geopolitical fault-lines which it imposed and which now so constrain the West’s room for manoeuvre, even within its own borders.

Fourthly, humanitarianism and the Value-Interest were also inextricably linked with the then concept of European defence.  Back in June 1998 I wrote a piece for the “New Statesman”, a Labour Party-leaning magazine called “Time to Bite the Eurobullet”.  The piece called on Britain to help lead the creation of a meaningful autonomous European defence project and laid out the framework for what became the 1998 St Malo Declaration with France and eventually the EU’s 1999 Helsinki Declaration. 

Scroll on fifteen years and European defence is effectively dead.  Torn asunder by the 2003 Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis and the ‘national caveats’ and ‘red cards’ which meant too few nations did too much of the dying in Afghanistan.  Today, European ‘defence’ is split between the declining Anglosphere and the ‘do nothing’ Eurosphere.  Sadly, once again it is the Americans and British taking action in Iraq whilst ‘can’t do, won’t do’ European allies sit and twiddle their fingers.  Indeed, I am growing old listening to the same old EU nonsense that the much-vaunted Common Security and Defence Policy and which enshrines the very principles of humanitarianism is still young.  To paraphrase Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch; CSDP is dead, an ex-policy that has ceased to be.    

However, there is one other reason humanitarianism is in retreat – the loss of public support.  At the weekend Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC that, “…alongside the humanitarian crisis, there is also a political and extremism crisis in Iraq that has a direct effect on us back here in the UK”.  Each and every time Britain has engaged on a humanitarian mission it has led to thousands of refugees seeking refuge in Britain.  Yesterday, Canon Andrew White the somewhat implausibly Anglican Vicar of Baghdad called on Britain to take an initial 20-30,000 ‘Christian’ refugees from Iraq. The same day 35 Afghan Sikhs were rescued from a container at Tilbury docks seeking refuge not in India but Britain.  English society in particular has been progressively destabilised by the arrival of significant numbers of traumatised people from traumatised societies in traumatised regions often with views and beliefs markedly different from the “British values” Prime Minister Cameron claims to champion.  Indeed, the tragic irony of humanitarianism is that not a few of the Islamic State extremists America and Britain are seeking to defeat are so-called hyphen-Britons drawn from communities that settled in Britain as a function of humanitarianism.

Britain and the wider West must not abandon the principles of humanitarianism for it is those principles that defines the civilised West and help to make the world a better place.  At the same time, uncomfortable though it may be particularly for those on the political Left, societies such as Britain must be careful not to risk the very social cohesion that still just about defines them simply to uphold humanitarianism.  Western states like Britain need to escape quickly from the woolly no-end, dead-end no-man's land that humanitarianism has become.  They must also establish a much clearer idea of their interests if they are to preserve their values.

Indeed, until balance is restored between values and interests humanitarianism will continue to retreat and any sense of international community with it.   For all that I pay genuine tribute to the brave aid workers who have given their lives for the sake of humanitarianism, the better world in which they clearly believed and for whom World Humanitarian Day was rightly created.


Julian Lindley-French 

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