David Rieff in his book, “A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis”, presents the idea that the concept of an international community is moot and nothing more than a fanciful notion. In the book Rieff elaborates on the following notions:
A.)That there is no world consensus on most matters of true importance (Rieff, 9).
B.)That acquiescence for international action is done through a give and take principle. C.)That international treaty regimes are an expression of power not community (Rieff, 9).
D.)That there is a distinct lack of moral consensus with no means of international institutional enforcement (Rieff, 9).
The culmination of these observations is the notion that states and international organizations are part of an international community in name but not in spirit and action (Rieff, 9 – 16).
What must be understood is that the observations of Rieff echo that of the theory of Realism which states that the international system is anarchic, that states are the primary actors in international relations and act only towards their own national interest and that there is no international actor above the state which can exert a degree of control over it.
Based on the view of Rieff and the tenets of the theory of Realism it can be stated that states cannot be relied on to act altruistically in matters involving humanitarianism because they always have some form of underlying interest which is self-beneficial.
As such international humanitarian organizations (Doctors without Borders, Red Cross etc.) thus bear the responsibility of being neutral parties in providing humanitarian aid to various conflict zones and poverty ridden areas due to their ability to act without being unduly influenced by some inherent state driven directive or national interest.
Defining the concept of “humanitarian”
The most well know definition the term “humanitarian” specifically states it as being an individual who promotes human welfare and social reform in areas where it is needed. The term itself originates from the concept of humanitarianism which can be described as a form of ethos that espouses kindness, racial and ethnic acceptance, benevolence and the belief that all humans have an inherent right towards happiness and peace.
As such, to be a humanitarian is to espouse such values through both word and deed. This can take the form of either direct action as seen in the act of volunteering one’s skills and services to help people in strife stricken areas or through the creation of various works which try to change social mindsets in order to encourage aide to be given to people that need it the most.
At the present, humanitarianism has evolved beyond mere individualism in that instead of it being an initiative coming from a singular individual the current trend in humanitarian aide has been one based off a multilateral platform of organizational coordination and assistance wherein humanitarian action in various areas in the world is coordinated by international organizations who enable and efficient and systematic distribution of aid and resources.
Unfortunately, as mentioned by Rieff, the neutrality of international organizations has increasingly become compromised through the influences of various states and international organizations resulting in a previously neutral concept of aide now taking sides in various global conflicts.
Not only does this violate the concept of neutrality but it increasingly places aide workers at risk since once an organization takes a specific side it becomes a target for possible aggression.
The History and Relationship between Human Rights and Humanitarianism
The initial development of the concept of humanitarianism and humanitarian law can historically be traced back to the Geneva Convention of 1864 wherein the concept was utilized as a means of providing a codified set of rules regarding the treatment and condition of wounded soldiers during war.
In fact, humanitarian law itself can actually be traced further back in western history as a “law of war or armed conflict” which sought to “civilize” the concept of war by “humanizing” the act of conflict and restraining combatants from committing unnecessary acts of cruelty or ruthlessness.
Thus the concept of “humane” warfare evolved resulting in generally accepted “civilized” actions during times of conflict. This took the form of non-aggression against civilian populations, ensuring the continued well-being of prisoners of war, the abolishment of certain types of weapons on battlefields etc.
These actions resulted in the subsequent codification of humanitarian law during times of warfare as seen in the Geneva trend (discussed the conditions of war victims), the Hague trend (discussed appropriate and permissible means and methods to be utilized in war) and the New York trend (by the United Nations which further enhances the humanitarian aspect of the code of armed conflict).
The basis of human rights on the other hand can be seen stemming from various religious and non-religious backgrounds however all of them have the same assertion that by virtue of being human all individuals have inherent rights which thus forms the basis of human rights and human rights law which became codified in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
What must be understood is that humanitarianism originally came from following notions related to civilized behavior expected from professional armies during times of war while human rights originate from a far less defined origins and have different forms of applicability depending on the region in question.
As such humanitarianism today is seen more along the lines of sparing people from the horrors of war while human rights on the other hand considers the concept of war a violation of a person’s right to live.
Thus it can be seen that humanitarianism works within the present system of conflict while human rights works outside of it. It must be noted though that human rights and humanitarianism often overlap in the sense that in defense of human rights humanitarianism is often utilized as means of justifying certain actions. Such a connection can be seen in the following scenarios:
a.) Its application in terrorist scenarios where it becomes necessary to prohibit negative actions on civilian populations which is a form of humanitarianism but also proscribes to the tenets of human rights.
b.) The current refugee system as stated in the 4th Geneva convention which protects individual driven from their homes due to conflict yet overlaps with the concept of protecting a person’s right to life.
c.) The current prohibition against torture in several countries which is a form of both humanitarianism and human rights.
Humanitarian Intervention and Collaboration with the Military
The concept of humanitarian intervention is defined as the use of military force by another state in order to prevent or stop continued human rights violations within a particular state.
As is the case in this particular type of intervention there are 3 scenarios that may occur: one where the intervention is done with a distinct absence of consent from the state performing the violations, the other is when the action being performed is done in accordance to a role of punishing the state for the violations being committed and lastly when the intervention itself is sanctioned by the UN security council.
One of the first cases of humanitarian intervention can be seen in the 1824 intervention of Russia, Britain and France in the Greek war of independence as well as the subsequent interventions seen in Syria, Haiti and the Congo.
In such cases intervention was often met with a distinctly hostile interaction between the military and the intervening state however as of late as seen in the interventions conducted in Yugoslavia by NATO in 1999, the UNTAET in East Timor in 1999 and the coalition forces in Libya at the present there has been a distinct interaction between the coordination of efforts between NGO (non-governmental organizations) and the military in providing aid to civilian populations.
The reason behind this can actually be traced back to the fact that as humanitarianism has shifted from an individualistic to a more organizational structure this has in effect enabled a far better means of collaboration and interaction which as a result has saved countless lives through the interaction between military forces and NGO’s.
For me the various facts presented present two distinct trains of thought, in one I agree with the notion of Rieff when he stated that the concept of an international community is nothing more than a fanciful notion since all states tend to act in their own self-interest on the other hand I also disagree with Rieff in that as I see it humanitarianism accomplished by various NGO’s does indicate that an international community is in place but not one defined through state relations but rather through inter-social considerations.
For me, the very fact that people from other countries are willing to be altruistic, helpful and benevolent to people they don’t even know, who are from other countries and vastly different social and ethnic backgrounds is indicative of the fact that a type of community does exist, since this particular form of altruism does indicate as much, but as of yet there is still no way in which to actually define its shape or form which might be due to its infancy and the fact that people are still trying to create a definition for the international community on the basis of traditional community based definitions which are not applicable in this particular case.
Rieff, David. A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. (2002). New York