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First, Do No Harm

A BED FOR THE NIGHT: Humanitarianism in Crisis, By David Rieff, Simon & Schuster: 384 pp., $26

October 06, 2002|SAMANTHA POWER | Samantha Power, a fellow at the Open Society Institute, is the author of "'A Problem From Hell': America and the Age of Genocide."

But the worst was yet to come. As Rieff writes, "If Bosnia turned humanitarianism on its ear ideologically, Rwanda broke its heart." During the genocide, while about 800,000 Rwandans were murdered, the United States blocked military action. More egregiously, because the Clinton Administration feared it would eventually be called upon to rescue embattled UN peacekeepers, U.S. officials demanded the withdrawal of the armed blue helmets. The few relief workers who remained lacked the means to stem the extermination campaign. Indeed, NGOs were powerless even to protect their Rwandan employees. Most of the Tutsis who had worked for humanitarian organizations (and those who worked for Western embassies, for that matter) were murdered. Once relief workers finally got geared up to offer help, they supplied assistance not to the victims of the genocide but to the victimizers, the genocidaire who had fled Rwanda and been struck by a fatal wave of cholera. Again, the bystanders to genocide cited their relief efforts as proof of their generosity. But this time, by tending to the refugees' humanitarian needs, Western governments and aid agencies helped the killers regroup for more murderous attacks. Rieff quotes one aid worker who was deployed at the height of the emergency and who realized only upon returning to the United States, "Hey, I've been busting my butt for a bunch of ax murderers!"

Here, according to Rieff, many humanitarians (a term he never actually defines) decided they had had enough of neutrality in the face of mass murder and enough of putting "Band-Aids on malignant tumors." If NGOs did not become advocates, they would become accomplices. Since only states could properly stem the carnage, aid workers began to call for and work with state power. The long-standing notion of "humanitarianism against politics" was replaced by a politicized humanitarianism.

In subsequent emergencies in Kosovo and Afghanistan, Rieff tells us, aid groups worked in dangerously collaborative fashion with states. In Kosovo, when NATO bombed the Serbs in the spring of 1999, he claims that humanitarianism had "all but begged for the chance to be used as a moral warrant for warfare." In Afghanistan, U.S. officials anxious to win over public opinion dropped precision-guided munitions along with (imprecisely guided) meals-ready-to-eat. U.S. forces also tried to coordinate their efforts with the relief and refugee groups. As Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in October 2001, "The NGOs are such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team."

In this original but overly tidy synopsis of the last decade, Rieff suggests that Afghanistan marked the end of the era of independent humanitarianism. He argues that Oxfam, CARE, the International Rescue Committee, the office of the U.N. High Commissar for Refugees and other aid agencies are increasingly becoming tools of governments, and he fears aid givers and war fighters will henceforth be indistinguishable. A skeptic that anything governmental can ever be humanitarian, he urges NGOs to return to neutrality, whatever its imperfections. CARE should not be building human rights monitoring into its refugee camp contracts. Aid agencies should not be pulling out of Zimbabwe on human rights grounds. Politicians should play politics, while the humanitarians should supply macaroni and tents. "Let humanitarianism be humanitarianism," Rieff concludes. "Let it save some lives, whatever the compromises it has to make along the way, and let it tend to the victims .... [I]s that really so little?"

As is true of most of Rieff's critiques, his plea here for humility and mission retrenchment will inject a valuable degree of self-consciousness into organizations known for their ad hoc and reactive decision-making. Instead of forever "fighting the last war," as they have been prone to do, Rieff urges them to pull back and respond not merely to short-term need but also to long-term sustainability.

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