Global Civil Society as a Humanitarian Actor: Constituting a Right of Humanitarian Assistance

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Pat Gibbons and Hans-Joachim Heintze (eds.)The Humanitarian Challenge10.1007/978-3-319-13470-3_5

5. Global Civil Society as a Humanitarian Actor: Constituting a Right of Humanitarian Assistance

Raimonda Miglinaitė 

Institute of International Relations and Political Studies, Vilnius University, Vilnius, Lithuania



Raimonda Miglinaitė

5.1 Introduction

The transformation of humanitarianism since the end of the Cold War has raised heated debates about the intersection between the principles of impartiality, neutrality and the politicization of relief efforts which increasingly defines humanitarian action today. This debate is partially fuelled by the traditional understanding of humanitarian assistance as an act of empathy and compassion, i.e. as an inherently moral and apolitical activity, which, in the context of contemporary armed conflicts and the expansion of the humanitarian enterprise, is increasingly difficult to sustain. An alternative approach to this debate is to conceptualize humanitarian action as a matter of rights. Such an approach is implied by Alex De Waal who suggests that in the context of contemporary humanitarian crises the question is no longer the existence of humanitarian response as such but rather its quality, which signifies that “a right to humanitarian assistance, which would have been a fantasy several decades ago, is now within reach” (De Waal 2010, p. 134). In this article I intend to follow this idea further and suggest that a right to humanitarian assistance already exists, albeit not in international legal frameworks, but by virtue of contemporary humanitarian practices as well as the framework of the responsibility to protect. Furthermore, I will argue that the existence of a right to humanitarian assistance is largely dependent on the functioning of the global civil society that constitutes this right through its political and normative potential. As such the global civil society re-affirms its position as a significant humanitarian actor. To make the argument I will firstly outline the transformation of humanitarianism that has taken place since the end of the Cold War and overview the existing political frameworks that allow speaking of a right to humanitarian assistance as such. I will then proceed to analyze the concept of the global civil society in empirical, political and normative terms to demonstrate its role in constituting a right to humanitarian assistance. I will conclude this article with several remarks regarding the implications of constituting humanitarian assistance as a matter of right, both for the global civil society and those who are seen as holders of such a right.

5.2 Transformation of Humanitarian Action

Humanitarianism has been transformed. Since the end of the Cold War the number of humanitarian actors and the scope of their activity increased dramatically with humanitarians reaching almost every part of the world afflicted by natural or man-made crises and states providing generous assistance for such activities (Barnett 2005, p. 723). All the while the ambition driving humanitarian action expanded as well: humanitarians are no longer content with providing immediate relief from suffering only to watch the victims die later as crises continue. Rather, the aim now is to eliminate the root causes of human misery by changing political and societal structures prone to war and instability. Hence the principles of neutrality and impartiality that defined humanitarianism since the creation of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (ICRC) are no longer sacrosanct. Increasingly, they are giving way to the appreciation of nuanced political contexts wherein humanitarian crises take place and where protection of victims often requires flexibility as well as political and moral compromises (Weiss 1999, p. 6). Humanitarian action is thus becoming a politicized as well as an institutionalized and professionalized field of activity that can no longer be defined in opposition to politics and has to be recognized as a part of a broader global agenda of economic development and conflict management (Barnett 2005, p. 7, also Macrae 2002, p. 3). Indeed the transformation of humanitarian action is so profound that its founding principles seem to have been created for a different world—one where there is a clear distinction between civilians and combatants, and where armed forces adhere to rules of combat (Weiss 1999, p. 2). And, arguably it is upon the reflection on the changing world and nature of humanitarian crises that humanitarianism has been transforming.

The changes that swept the globe at the end of the Cold War were as wide as they were profound, affecting virtually every aspect of political and economic life. Humanitarian action was no exception and the immediacy with which humanitarian issues captured the world’s attention in the early 1990s is a reflection of shifting global politics. Arguably, the rising prominence of humanitarian actors was all but inevitable given the changing nature of armed conflict and the rise of the New Wars within which violence directed at civilians became a purposely and routinely adopted military strategy (Kaldor 2007). The New Wars multiplied a number of humanitarian crises (the majority of which were now man-made) that had to be and, importantly, could be addressed as the all-consuming great power rivalry no longer gripped the attention and resources of societies and decision-makers across the globe. The end of the Cold War at least nominally resulted in the victory of western liberalism and the expansion of “liberal hegemonic order” (Ikenberry 2011) whose proponents—mainly liberal democracies in the global North—promptly believe, if not in protection of human rights, then at least in the prevention of “human wrongs” (Brown 1999, p. 48). According to some pundits though, the increasing prominence of humanitarian actors and states’ willingness to support them had a more sinister side as states began treating humanitarian assistance as an easy way out of politically inconvenient situations generated by crises abroad. Instead of dealing with refugee flows or making costly strategic decisions that could resolve on-going crises it became easier for states to support humanitarian action this way keeping asylum seekers away while appeasing the general public (Roberts 1999, p. 24). In this context states’ attention to humanitarian emergencies was started to be seen as emerging from their strategic and foreign policy calculations rather than genuine concern of the flight of crises-affected populations. Meanwhile the role of numerous humanitarian actors, especially those coming from the non-governmental sector, also became a subject of a debate about the merits and danger of intersection between humanitarian action and politics (Weiss 1999, p. 5). On the one hand, states’ increasing attention to humanitarian crises and willingness to fund humanitarian NGOs reflects the changing reality of global politics and corresponds to the practical, if not the moral necessity to deal with multiplying humanitarian crises. On the other hand, states’ preoccupation with “saving the strangers” (Wheeler 2000) and humanitarian actors’ dependency on state funding poses a danger that humanitarianism has become primarily a state instrument for the pursuit of foreign policy goals, while humanitarian agencies’ urgency to act is fuelled by financial needs rather than genuine concern for the well-being of crises-affected populations (Fox 2001, p. 82).

Compounding the questions of state—humanitarian actors dependency are the issues raised by the transformation of humanitarianism as such: one of the key features of transformed, “new” humanitarianism is that it aims to address underlying, long term causes of violent conflict rather than just providing relief to those suffering. Hence aid conditionality that goes against the principles of neutrality and impartiality becomes inevitable (Weiss 1999, p. 17). The debate thus acquires an ideological nature. The proponents of transformed humanitarian effort see neutral humanitarian relief as morally questionable, as instead of stopping human suffering it creates “well-fed dead” (NYT 1992). Their opponents, however, note that politicized humanitarian action fuels war economies and increases the risk of losing humanitarian space. Furthermore, the introduction of aid conditionality deems some victims as undeserving of relief—thus violating the core moral principle of helping those in need (Fox 2001, p. 282). Such a debate fuelled by two different understandings of moral principles underlying humanitarian action is unlikely to be easily or definitely resolved. The best that humanitarians can hope for in the near future is to learn to manage the connection between humanitarian action and politics, ensuring “more humanized politics and more effective humanitarian action” (Weiss 1999, p. 22). Nevertheless, if any broad conclusions from the transformation of humanitarianism and the ensuing debate can be made is that the intensifying presence of humanitarian NGOs around the globe, media coverage and the prominence of humanitarian issues on the international agenda creates a set of expectations that every humanitarian crisis has to be addressed in an immediate and comprehensive way. While this is not the claim that humanitarian crises should not be addressed, it is an observation that humanitarianism is no longer a question of compassion and charity, but, possibly, a matter of right. To quote Alex de Waal again: “The idea of a right which would have been a fantasy several decades ago is now within reach” (De Waal 2010, p. 134).

What Alex de Waal refers to here is that in the past few decades the transformation and expansion of humanitarian activities (coupled possibly with the changing normative context of global politics) created a situation, where every crisis resulting in human suffering elicits a reaction from the global public. This reaction often leads to substantial action—humanitarian aid, or in exceptional cases, military involvement, although sometimes it remains confined to demands for national governments “to act” and stop human suffering. But the main point here is that just as the multiplying humanitarian crises, a global outcry and subsequent action in regard to them have become a routine practice in international relations (even though that by no means “routinizes” the suffering of the affected populations). In this sense, de Waal refers to an important development that has occurred in the post—Cold War era (albeit mainly in Western liberal societies): human suffering, even in far—away places has become unacceptable. A prominent example of such development was NATO’s campaign in the Balkans in late 1990s which coincidently was labeled to be the first war fought for human rights values, rather than state interests (Blair 1999). The public on both sides of the Atlantic not only expected to fight a war without sustaining casualties but was equally averse to the idea of inflicting casualties as well (Brown 1999, p. 49). It appears that violence, especially when inflicted upon civilians became morally repulsive no matter the circumstances, creating the urge for members of the international community to do something “anything […] in the face of unspeakable acts” (such as war crimes and crimes against humanity) (Chesterman 2011, p. 11). Arguably, it is because of this urge that, according to de Waal: “the question [in context of humanitarian crisis – R.M.] is no longer response as such but the quality of response” (De Waal 2010, p. 134), which signifies the emergence of the idea of a right to humanitarian assistance. The concept of such a right would suggest then, that there is an emerging imperative to stop human suffering which is not simply a summary of the elevated expectations of the efficiency of humanitarian relief, but rather a different understanding of global reality and the nature of rights and responsibilities connecting individuals across nation-state borders.

The emergence of such an understanding (which is by no means uncontroversial or straightforward) can be attributed to multiple factors: the spirit of the “new internationalism” (Blair 1999) that swept across the Western states in the 1990s prompting them to pursue ethical foreign policy, as famously proclaimed by former UK foreign secretary Robin Cook (Guardian 1997). Or perhaps, human ability to learn to avoid “heinous types of moral error” and progress morally over time (examples of such learning being women’s emancipation and the prohibition of slavery) (Nussbaum 2007, p. 940), or, possibly, the capacity of contemporary media to create moral relations between strangers using emotion-invoking images (Ignatieff 1998, p. 10), or, probably, some combination of all the above.

Nevertheless, in this article I will explore the idea that such a different understanding of global reality and hence the emergence of the idea of a right to humanitarian assistance is related to the increasing prominence of global civil society. Its role in that regard seems almost intuitive—after all the changes in global politics and transformation of humanitarianism broadly coincided with civil society being no longer confined to nation-state borders because of the intensifying processes of globalization (Kaldor 2003, p. 1). However, I intend to look further than such a temporal coincidence at the political and normative capacity of the global civil society to shape international norms and state practices in the humanitarian realm, and the consequences thereof. Before I proceed though, the concept of a right to humanitarian assistance must be clarified. While Alex de Waal was prompted to consider a possibility of such a right bearing in mind the transformation and expansion of humanitarian efforts, it is necessary to ask how such a right could be conceived in the existing global political and normative framework or, to put it differently, how can we think of humanitarian assistance as a matter of right, and what would that mean in practical terms?

5.3 Humanitarian Assistance as a Matter of Right?

It is important to note here that the discourse of rights in context of humanitarian crises is by no means new. The “right to intervene” (droit d’ingérence) has been a part of global humanitarian vernacular at least since late 1960s’, signifying a commitment to provide relief irrespective of whether the involved states acquiesce to that or not (Allen and Styan 2000). This sentiment became even clearer with the increasing frequency of humanitarian interventions and growing prominence of the protection of human rights at the end of the Cold War. This arguably demonstrated a normative shift in favor of the rights of individuals rather than states, as Western countries began to interpret the enforcement of global humanitarian norms as one of their responsibilities (Wheeler 2000, p. 289). Nevertheless both the right to intervene and the practice of humanitarian intervention remained highly controversial, partly because the right to intervene did not equal a duty: the focus on the victims of humanitarian emergencies and idea of a right to intervene enabled a practice of humanitarian interventions but did not determine them (Wheeler 2000, p. 299). This resulted in inconsistency regarding the cases that drew international community’s humanitarian attention (Bellamy 2003, p. 19) and fuelled a range of criticism about the practice of humanitarian intervention, not least among which was the understanding that a “right to intervene” focused more on the rights and needs of interveners, rather than those who they were aimed to protect (ICISS 2001, p. 16).

However the debate concerning rights of crises-affected populations and states comprising international society has shifted. In 2001 the high-profile International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty formulated a principle of Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) in an attempt to change the terms of international debate regarding the questions of state sovereignty and intervention. Tension between the principle of state sovereignty and increasing necessity of humanitarian interventions would often lead to an impasse in the face of humanitarian emergencies. The Commission sought to re-evaluate these questions “from the point of view of those seeking or needing support, rather than those who may be considering intervention” (ICISS 2001, p. 17). It attempted to do that by re-conceptualizing sovereignty as state’s responsibility to protect its population “from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” (ICISS 2001, p. xi). In cases where a state manifestly fails to do so, such responsibility lies with the international community who has to be prepared to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian means, or, should they be inadequate, collective actions falling under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to protect the affected populations (UN 2005, p. 31). The work of the Commission was largely driven by the need to reconcile contending norms of state sovereignty and intervention in such a way that in a case of a particular crisis the language of intervention would not trump state sovereignty at the very outset, and that those advocating non-intervention would not be cast as anti-humanitarian. Hence the commission aimed to re-affirm the primacy and importance of the state in preventing conflicts and dealing with humanitarian crises (ICISS 2001, p. 17) and assuage fears of those who saw international politics as overly interventionist.

The efforts of the Commission to reassure the states demonstrate that the responsibility to protect is an inherently statist principle. Nevertheless, it is important to note that its central moral tenet is the understanding that state sovereignty is contingent upon state’s willingness and ability to protect its populations from genocide and mass atrocities which conceptually results in two important developments. Firstly, it suggests that national political authorities are responsible not only to their citizens, but also to the international community over the way they treat their citizens (ICISS 2001, p. 13). Secondly, it re-affirms the population living within the state as the ultimate moral referent. Hence, by constituting crises-affected populations as owners of a right to protection from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity, i.e. disasters that generate the most extreme humanitarian emergencies, and locating responsibility associated with these rights not only within a state, but also to a large degree within the international community, the responsibility to protect echoes Alex de Waal’s understanding of the right to humanitarian assistance. From this perspective the right to humanitarian assistance gains substance as it becomes embedded in an international normative and political framework.

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