Home Sociology Humanitarian ethics : a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster
A fundamental issue in humanitarian ethics is the challenge of defining the field. Which ethical subjects are rightly of concern to humanitarian ethics? Are they acute suffering, the causes of suffering, entrenched poverty, the violations of all rights or some rights? Which forms of practice rightly and feasibly constitute humanitarian activity, and which fall outside the proper boundaries of humanitarian action? What state of affairs qualifies as a legitimate emergency? These questions about where humanitarian action begins and ends are recurring ones that never seem to be truly settled theoretically or in practice. The field is frankly fuzzy. A precise and unanimous definition of humanitarian scope and activity has eluded the profession to date.
Humanitarianism’s boundary problem sets running a recurring pattern of moral quandary around humanitarian legitimacy that is voiced in every emergency, usually in key questions about limits. Is this activity truly humanitarian? Can that institution be humanitarian? Do I stop being a humanitarian if I do this? Is the crisis over? These questions arise because the boundaries of the field are pulled in various directions by three different forces: actors, methodology and context. Between them, these factors tend to stretch understandings of humanitarian action to give it an elasticity that covers a range of different things, and sometimes seems to go beyond its fundamental moral purpose.
Many different institutional actors have adopted the word "humanitarian” to describe particular aspects of what they do. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and MSF use the word, as do multi-mandate UN agencies and NGOs who work as much for wider human development goals and global transformation. UN agencies like UNOCHA, UNHCR, UNICEF and UNWFP define themselves primarily as humanitarian. UNDP, UNFAO, UNIFEM and UN Habitat can refer to some of their work as humanitarian too. Governments have humanitarian departments. Peacekeeping forces, belligerent military forces and armed groups also refer to their humanitarian activities, as increasingly do commercial companies large and small. All these actors use humanitarian language broadly and with different interests attached. So, if one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, then one person’s humanitarian is another person’s development worker, company employee or bomber pilot. When "speaking humanitarian”, people can mean different things when they say the same thing.
Practical methodology blurs humanitarian definition too. If saving life from immediate threat can be readily understood as the main moral end of humanitarian work, the best means of doing this has naturally created mission creep towards a deeper ethics of social change. As we shall see, the humanitarian Code of Conduct rightly affirms the need to work with men and women to empower them and create sustainable public and personal goods that significantly improve their lives in the long term. This moral pull towards a particular ideal of progress is more akin to the broad ideological aims of human development than simple life-saving. It means that in its actual practice and methodological concerns humanitarian action is often very developmental and progressive, usually along the explicitly liberal lines of universal human rights.
Thirdly, operational context stretches humanitarian definition too. Most wars last between five and ten years, and often longer. Many societies that are vulnerable to ecological disaster or armed conflict remain “on the edge” for decades, creating a permanent zone of uncertain emergency that has been so well described by Mark Bradbury as “chronic instability” and “protracted crisis” and by Peter Redfield as the “verge of crisis” and the “long duree” of humanitarian action.13 In these long conflicts, protracted emergencies or situations of chronic vulnerability, agencies find it hard to leave off humanitarian activities completely, while they also understandably feel called more deeply into solutions to the more structural political and ecological dimensions of a crisis. As a result, and not unethically, they end up doing things that are not life-saving in the strict sense. This may be because they want to stay there “just in case” or are being paid to be there by powerful government donors, or because they feel morally bound to help people they have come to know and care about. These are all good and compelling reasons to stretch the humanitarian tent a little further.
Antonio Donini has encapsulated these and other aspects of humani- tarianism’s definitional problem with his usual panache:
The concept of humanitarianism is fraught with ambiguities. It connotes three separate but overlapping realities: an ideology, a movement and a profession. Together, they also form a political economy. What unites the various facets of humanitarianism is a broad commitment to alleviating the suffering and protecting the lives of civilians caught up in conflict or crisis. Beneath this common goal, however, the ideology, the movement and the profession are themselves deeply fractured. Like other “isms” ... [there are] card carrying defenders of orthodoxy, heretics, fellow travellers, revisionists and extremist figures. It now even has for-profit and military wings.. Traditionally, there are two ‘souls’ in the humanitarian ethos, one focusing on the universal values of compassion and charity and the other on the change
and transformation of society.14
In this book, I suppose I am a defender of orthodoxy who can tolerate quite a lot of stretch. For me, humanitarian action must always be responding to extreme life-threatening conditions and operate an ethic of protecting and saving human life that is deployed apart from wider concerns of social transformation and specific political ambitions for the society concerned. This ethic must embody a struggle for the dignity, preservation and safety of all human life, rather than the struggle for a particular political dispensation. It is, after all, these particular political struggles that tend to create the need for humanitarian action and its reaffirmation of the value of human lives above human differences. However, I am not pedantically orthodox. I recognize that all sorts of different actors can be humanitarian in specific instances. I also believe that being effectively humanitarian requires methodologies of practice that are socially progressive in a way that respects people and gives them humanitarian autonomy instead of simply bossing them about and giving them things they do not particularly want in aid processes that are deeply frustrating for them. In short, for me, humanitarian action is an occasional practice for extreme circumstances. It puts the value of human life above the significance of human difference when this principle is in clear and fatal danger of being lost. Anyone can and should do humanitarian action so long as they do it well and are honest about what they are doing. It would be wrong to masquerade quite different moral or immoral goals and activities as humanitarian ones. In the same way, I don’t suppose it would be right for a train driver to describe herself as a bus driver, or a person who eats chicken twice a week to say he is essentially a vegetarian.
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