On World Human Rights day, Dr. Róisín Read, of the Humanitarian Conflict Response Institute at The University of Manchester, writes about the ethics and issues surrounding humanitarian aid.
As the 64th World Human Rights Day is marked today, it is worth taking this opportunity to think about the relationship between human rights and humanitarianism, as some of the worst human rights abuses occur in regions which have been classified as having humanitarian emergencies: Syria, Gaza, Darfur, DRC, South Sudan, to name but a few.
Yet, the relationship between human rights and humanitarianism is a complex and uneasy one. Each has its own mythology, origin story and professional tradition. The explicitly political vision of human rights stands in contrast to the avowedly apolitical tradition of principled humanitarian action; based on neutrality (not taking sides), impartiality (giving assistance only according to need) and independence (from other interested parties and political groups).
However, for all their apparent differences, they share an important feature: the centrality of the figure of the human. Both human rights and humanitarianism are moral concepts based on a notion of a universal ideal of shared humanity. This universal ideal tells us we have obligations to each other, a responsibility to help ensure everyone’s needs are met and dignity is maintained.
What they quite often differ on is how to achieve this. Human rights advocates suggest that this should be a transformative political agenda while humanitarians focus on ensuring a basic level for those in immediate danger; though some organisations, such as Oxfam, have adopted a human rights-based approach to humanitarian action. In general, across the humanitarian field, the boundaries between these different kinds of actions have become increasingly blurred.
The universality of both human rights and humanitarianism demands that we see all humans as having equal worth. However, in practice, we are not valued equally. It is an uncomfortable thought, but the hierarchy of human life is starkly evident in the humanitarian area.
As researchers, such as Prof. Mark Duffield, have noted, international aid workers now live in ‘fortified aid compounds’ with security guards. They have insurance in case of emergencies. And, most importantly for the differentiation of life, they can leave at any time.
In South Sudan, almost a year ago today, violence broke out and has yet to be resolved. What began as an internal dispute in the ruling Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement between the President Salva Kiir and his former Vice-President Riek Machar quickly escalated, the violence being mobilised along ethnic lines with atrocities carried out by both sides. Just as they had before when violence erupted, many aid agencies responded by withdrawing their international staff and/or retreating into their aid compounds.
Fortified aid compounds have become a ubiquitous feature of the humanitarian landscape as the perception that the humanitarian space of aid delivery is under a greater threat than ever before increases, even if the evidence doesn’t completely support this. International aid workers occupy a distinct and radically different space to those they aim to assist. Their ability to leave if crisis breaks out; their standard of life; their security protocols; their medicines; their insurance all mark them as different and demonstrate the greater value placed on their lives. I am not criticising the organisations who have a duty of care to their employees, or the aid workers who have every right to protect themselves, rather highlighting the stark contrast we see between the lives of international aid workers and those they aim to assist which should force us to question whether all lives are valued equally.
News reporting also reinforces the greater importance placed on value of aid workers lives over ‘ordinary’ civilians. The killing in August of six South Sudanese who worked for Norwegian Peoples’ Aid was reported as aid workers killed, however, little is known about why they were killed and the best guess is that they were targeted due to their ethnicity rather than their identity as aid workers. Yet, their identity as aid workers was foregrounded in the reporting of their deaths, implicitly suggesting that that the killing of aid workers was somehow worse than the killing of six civilians for their ethnicity. This is not to trivialise their deaths but to point out that reported violence against aid workers cannot always be understood only, or even primarily, through this lens and to highlight the exceptional status given to humanitarian aid workers.
Equally valued lives?
While the language of universalism promoted by human rights and humanitarian actors may be laudable in theory, it can act obscure the myriad ways that lives are not equally valued, even within those spheres. In order to address this, there needs to be a more frank recognition of the way humanitarian aid interactions are rooted in power structures in which some lives are valued more than others.
There are no easy policy fixes to these problems, though there are a number of strategies being pursued by NGOs to try and ameliorate them. The increasing focus on partnerships with local actors and organisations in emergencies has potential, but currently is being pursued more in rhetoric than reality. Additionally, it is a trend being carried out in concert with remote management, a trend recently criticised by Médecins Sans Frontières. Both remote management and partnership strategies can simply transfer the risk to local aid workers, reinforcing rather than solving the problem highlighted here.
Larissa Fast’s new book, Aid in Danger, advocates a relational approach based on negotiating access and consent-based strategies of aid which promote acceptance by local populations. While undoubtedly an approach to aid that has fewer highly visible demonstrations of the stark contrasts in lifestyles of aid workers and the populations that host them is welcome, is it not a new strategy and only takes us so far.
Perhaps the most useful intervention would be for governments to commit seriously to the political resolution of crises and to stop using humanitarian aid as a substitute for political engagement. Humanitarian aid will only ever be a stop-gap measure and will always come with inequalities of power.