Courtesy Reuters

Humanitarianism in Crisis

A WORLD APART?

The humanitarian world emerged from the 1990s both saddened and chastened. Again and again nonprofit and UN personnel had been overwhelmed by the magnitude of particular crises -- as when 2 million people crossed from Rwanda into Zaire in 1994, or when 800,000 Kosovar Albanians were forcibly deported from the province by Serb forces in the spring of 1999. Even more unnerving was the sense that, often despite the relief groups' own best efforts, the moral dilemmas attendant on their actions had only grown more acute over the course of the decade. Even so, humanitarians did not give up. Non-governmental organizations (NGOS) and UN agencies multiplied their efforts to refine their operations in light of the lessons of Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Still, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, experienced relief workers had come to accept the new conventional wisdom that there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.

From this simple truth, however, diametrically opposing conclusions can be drawn about what humanitarian action should involve. Many persistent advocates of humanitarianism, including UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, see it as one of a number of "pillars" supporting a promising new liberal world order. Such an order, they seem to believe, can be constructed to fill the vacuum created by globalization's undermining of the idea of state sovereignty. It will also be built on the increasing incorporation of key human rights principles into international laws and treaties. As the authors of the December 2001 report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty on "The Responsibility to Protect" put it, "What has gradually been emerging [since 1945] is a parallel transition from a culture of sovereign impunity to a culture of national and international accountability." In other words, individuals have rights that neither their communities nor their governments can abrogate.

It is unclear, however, whether humanitarianism is the appropriate instrument to further these objectives. Many NGOS, particularly those influenced by the British and American aid traditions, assume that relief groups could play a

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