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International Lives and National Lives

The idea that agencies might put relative values on different human lives within their organizations seems to be an egregious breach of the radical equality of human life that is central to humanitarian ethics’ foundational values of humanity and impartiality. A humanitarian agency making a routine distinction between national and international lives would indeed be outrageous and racist hypocrisy. It would be profoundly immoral if it were held as a general principle. Tolerating different levels of risk between international and national staff can only make moral sense if the context creates ethical reasons why some staff can and should accept higher levels of risk than others. The only way it can be ethical to make nationality, religion, race or colour an acceptable criterion in differentiations of risk is if these decisions are justified by differences in threat, connectedness and consent. A moral case can then be made for these three exceptions:

  • • Threat exception—if the threat of violence is known to be targeted specifically at international staff or people with particular nationalities or beliefs, then it is reasonable to make an exception. In this case, it makes sense to protect humanitarian workers from the more vulnerable group if people from other groups are genuinely at less risk. In some cases, this will mean protecting international staff and exposing national staff. In other situations, it may be the reverse. National staff can often be at greater risk and so it makes moral sense to protect them and deploy international staff.
  • • Connectedness exception—many national staff can feel especially connected to their communities in times of crisis and be bound by an additional communal duty not to abandon families, friends and neighbours in their time of suffering and need. This connectedness means they willingly take on levels of risk that seem too high for international staff. Voicing this particular duty, national staff will sometimes comfort or confront international staff by saying: "this is not your fight and you do not need to be here”, or "this is my people and I cannot walk away but must share their dangers”. This seems justifiable in line with our different circles of obligation and relationship.
  • • Consent exception—any form of exception that differentiates between the lives of various humanitarian workers must still be based on the consent of those involved. It would be wrong for an agency to command its staff to take on unequal dangers. People would need to understand the reasoning and consent fully to the risks and disparities involved. Gauging consent requires some subtlety in these cases, especially when financial incentives like extra per diems or danger money can distort consent. But if people genuinely consent to uneven dangers, then an exception can be made.

It seems fair to respect these particular exceptions made for either national staff or international staff, depending on the particular context. Taking unequal risks can be ethically justified. But it remains vital to support and protect exposed staff as much as possible when they make this choice. The duty of care heightens and does not reduce with distance or "remoteness” in these situations.

This chapter has looked at some of the perennial ethical challenges that routinely appear as strategic moral risks in humanitarian action. The next chapter will focus on the personal ethics of humanitarian workers and how best to cultivate operational virtues in individual humanitarians.

 
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