Mission impossible - humanitarianism is neutral or it is nothing

If any group of people is making the world a better place, it would seem to be humanitarian relief organizations. Outfits like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), Oxfam, and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) have thrust the plight of victims of war and hunger to the center of the world's consciousness, forcing the Western public to care about battered, faraway lands.

By giving people beds for the night, and by providing medicine and food, they have created hope where there was none. They have shamed Western governments into pressuring oppressors to honor humanitarian principles they would otherwise have flouted. Humanitarians would seem to be above reproach, beyond politics itself, the vanguard of what the writer Michael Ignatieff has called a 'revolution of moral concern.'

But what if this revolution is really a comforting and self-flattering fantasy? What if the rise of the humanitarian movement actually conceals the fact that the world is getting bloodier even as its values get better, and that humanitarian action amounts to little more than putting Band-Aids on a malignant tumor?

David Rieff has spent the better part of the last decade studying the humanitarian movement, and the conclusions he draws are troubling. In his despairing new book, 'A Bed for the Night,' he argues that the humanitarian movement, despite the best intentions, has gone terribly astray, sacrificing its first principle - the impartial provision of relief to people in need - in the name of a misguided utopian effort to export democracy and human rights to the developing world.

According to Rieff, the humanitarian movement's alliance with the human rights community and, more recently, with Western governments has distorted its priorities and eroded its independence.

"Humanitarianism," he declares, "is neutral or it is nothing."

In making these arguments, Rieff is swimming against a powerful current of opinion. It's a stroke that comes naturally to him. Sitting at a bar around the corner from his loft in lower Manhattan, he says, "I'm someone who has an allergy to consensus. I'm not a cynic. I'm a pessimist. I'm deeply motivated by some idea of removing illusions. If I could put it in some literary way, I'd say I'm a disillusionist."

A tall, bearded man with a mop of creatively disheveled hair and horn-rimmed glasses, Rieff has made a career of pouring ice water on liberal dreams of a world redeemed by international law and human rights norms, a vision he calls the 'great vanity of our age.'

"I think this is a deeply unpalatable book," he continues, caressing his Navajo turquoise-and-silver bracelet as 'Kind of Blue' plays in the background. "The one intellectual stance that's impermissible in America today is pessimism."

Not surprisingly, some critics are already assailing 'A Bed for the Night' for fostering a sense of futility about what humanitarians can achieve in disaster zones.

"I respect David's audacity and chutzpah," says Gerry Martone, the emergency response coordinator for the IRC and one of Rieff's fiercest critics, who has traveled with him in the Balkans. "But I find his perspective irritating. His cynicism about what we do is just a seductive reason not to care about the world's dispossessed."

Even Dr. Rony Brauman, the former president of MSF and one of Rieff's greatest admirers, shies away from his verdict that the humanitarian movement has failed.

"When one speaks of a failure," Brauman observed, "one implies that there could be success. I have a hard time imagining what a humanitarian success would be in situations where violence is itself the sign of failure. As humanitarians we inscribe ourselves in failure."

Yet Rieff has made himself indispensable to many humanitarian and human-rights groups, despite - or perhaps because of - his thoroughgoing critiques of their bedrock assumptions.

An occasional consultant to many of the groups he lambastes, Rieff is both an outsider and an insider - a 'house gadfly,' in the words of Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. "I disagree with David much of the time," says Aryeh Neier, the president of the Open Society Institute, 'but I think he plays a very valuable role, and I enjoy his provocations."

"I wish I could say he's a complete jerk but I can't," Martone says grudgingly. "He has a real camaraderie with aid workers in the field."

Rieff, who recently turned 50, is the son of the distinguished sociologist Philip Rieff and the famed essayist and novelist Susan Sontag. Raised in New York City by his mother - his parents divorced when he was six - Rieff grew up in the bosom of the city's intelligentsia. He inherited his parents' commitment to the life of the mind, cultivating precocious interests in Chinese history and silent film, but his great passion was travel. At the age of eight he accompanied Sontag on a trip to revolutionary Cuba, where he cut sugar cane. As a teenager he spent summers wandering through Bolivia, Mexico and Central Asia.

"When other kids went to Long Island or the lake, I was in Kabul and Johannesburg and Lima and Nairobi. I'd take off a week or so after the end of the school term and come back just in time for the Jerry Lewis telethon," he recalled. "So I had a kind of split life. As a result of those trips, I've always been aware that there was this great suffering world, much bigger than the world I came from."

As Rieff was becoming aware of that great suffering world, so were legions of other people in the West. The 1970s were the growth years of the humanitarian movement, when pictures of hungry children in war-ravaged lands first began to appear on billboards and in glossy magazines, when humanitarians came to view their work not as succor but as political solidarity, as consciousness-raising, as conflict-resolution, even as revolution.

The idea that humanitarianism could change the world if not save it from its sins was a striking departure from the model of the Red Cross, the mother of all humanitarian organizations, which had been caring for the wounded and the sick ever since its creation at the 1864 Geneva Convention.

In the eyes of many humanitarians of Rieff's generation, the ICRC's strict code of political neutrality led directly to abject moral failure: During World War II, it kept silent about the horrors of Auschwitz for fear of being evicted by the Nazis. Haunted by this example, a number of humanitarian organizations adopted a more activist approach.

In 1971, in the aftermath of the Biafran war, a young French doctor by the name of Bernard Kouchner broke with the ICRC and created his own organization, MSF (Doctors Without Borders). The ICRC had required him to sign a vow of discretion before going to Biafra, but Kouchner refused to keep quiet about what he came to believe was the Nigerian government's campaign to exterminate the Ibo population.

MSF's slogan 'soignez et temoignez' (care for and testify) carried an implicit rejection of the ICRC's code of neutrality.

The landscape of humanitarian action grew even more crowded and complex during the 1990s, as armed conflicts erupted throughout the post-Cold War world order, in the Balkans, in Africa, and in Central Asia. In Bosnia, humanitarian organizations realized early on that the Western powers were using their presence on the ground as an excuse to do nothing about Slobodan Milosevic's aggressions. And so they tried to turn the tables, bearing witness to the depradations of the Serb forces in the media, urging politicians to act, and, in some cases, openly lobbying for military intervention in defense of the Bosnian republic.

Unlike the Western powers, humanitarians emerged from Bosnia with their honor intact, and with an emboldened sense of ambition. When Serb forces tightened their grip on Kosovo, humanitarians were among the first to call for NATO intervention. In what may have been the ultimate expression of the new humanitarianism, Kouchner himself became UN proconsul in Kosovo after the war.

Rieff first began confronting the dilemmas of humanitarian action while covering the Balkan wars of the 1990s. In Bosnia he learned - as he wrote in his 1995 book 'Slaughterhouse' - to "despise the UN for its impartiality," its refusal to stand clearly on the side of the victims, its strained efforts to appear "balanced." He favored the more openly partisan humanitarianism being developed by activists like John Fawcett, who ran the IRC's programs in Sarajevo. In 'Slaughterhouse,' Rieff issued a passionate indictment of Western inaction - and UN neutrality - in the face of ethnic cleansing.

But what was appropriate for Bosnia, Rieff now feels, wasn't appropriate for most other humanitarian emergencies.

"The reality is that most conflicts in which humanitarian relief workers are needed do not have a clear-cut right side and wrong side," he writes in 'A Bed for the Night.' "The lessons drawn by relief workers from the Bosnian experience were the right lessons for Balkan wars but the wrong lessons for humanitarianism."

Bosnia produced 'distortions,' chief among them the view that since aid inevitably has a political impact, relief workers should always adopt a consciously political orientation in their work. If 'Slaughterhouse' illustrated the perils of neutrality, 'A Bed for the Night' explores the dangers of engagement: the overreach, confusion, and sheer hubris that occur when organizations violate neutrality in the name of higher, and perhaps unachievable, ideals.

"When I started writing this book," Rieff confesses, "I was for a wised-up, muscular humanitarianism." Today, he reserves his harshest criticisms for the advocates of such a humanitarianism. One of his most frequent targets is Michael Ignatieff, the Carr Professor of Human Rights Practice at Harvard, whom he calls "the voice of the caring branch of the status quo."

"I included the attack on Michael because I think he should know better, and because there's something willful about his idealism, something offensively Panglossian," Rieff explains.

Some readers may be perplexed by Rieff's attacks on Ignatieff, since the two men both supported American interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.

"The difference," Rieff explained, "is that I support these things out of a kind of despair as the lesser of evils, whereas Michael is genuinely infatuated with the idea of the great powers acting for good purposes, and he does see human rights as the new mission civilisatrice of the West at its best."

In response, Ignatieff says, "David seems to think we're happy defenders of brutalism in the name of humanitarian values when in fact everyone realizes that it's really a case of lesser evils. I sometimes think that what David is really interested in showing you is that he's the only person aware of the agony of moral choice." He adds: "David wants to cure humanitarian aid workers of false consolation and false hope, but I'm not sure they need the cure."

"I think an aid worker in the field could quite appropriately read my book and say, ' Look, when we're doing this work we don't feel any of this stuff,' " Rieff concedes. "But I think in headquarters these large romantic and imperial dreams are alive and well and growing."

To Rieff, the persistence of these outsized hopes is all the more galling because they ought to have died in the killing fields of Rwanda.

In 1994 Hutu militias slaughtered nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in six weeks of infernal efficiency. The genocide came to an end thanks to the Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by Paul Kagame, who earned the sympathy of humanitarians and journalists, including Rieff.

But the troubles didn't end there. Kagame's troops began carrying out killings of their own. And as hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees, many of them perpetrators of genocide, massed in refugee camps in the Eastern Congo, humanitarians faced an agonizing dilemma: Should they provide relief to the victims, even if some of the victims were murderers, and even if the murderers were using the aid to rebuild the army that nearly wiped out the Tutsis?

Invoking a 'right of abstention,' MSF withdrew, a decision Rieff endorses.

After much anguished reflection, CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere) decided to stay, rather than abandon the refugees to their fate. The risks of being neutral were staggering, but so were the risks of not being neutral.

To Rieff, Rwanda underlined the impotence of humanitarianism in the face of overwhelming tragedy. Humanitarianism could help people, but it could also strengthen the wrong people; it could provide relief, but it couldn't resolve conflicts; it could alleviate the suffering of survivors, but it could not prevent genocide, or vengeance by victims of genocide.

The interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan are often cited as examples of muscular humanitarianism at its savviest, but Rieff thinks they exemplify the movement's deeply compromising alliance with Western power.

He's appalled by the way states used 'the moral warrant of humanitarianism to justify their actions' - and by the way many humanitarian groups embraced what he considers Orwellian rhetoric of 'humanitarian intervention.'

War is never humanitarian, he cautions; in fact, the war that many humanitarians called for in Kosovo aggravated the country's humanitarian crisis, precipitating the flight of a million Kosovars.

With NATO setting their agenda and the West pouring in money for their efforts, humanitarians became, in effect, 'subcontractors' to governments, accepting the 'militarization of their vocation.' By the time the Afghan campaign rolled around, the lines between humanitarian assistance and military action had blurred to the point where Secretary of State Colin Powell could describe nongovernmental organizations as 'such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team.'

In Rieff's view, Powell was only slightly distorting the cozy nature of the relationship, based on ideological congruence and financial dependence. If humanitarians were mistaken for military personnel in Afghanistan and shot at as a result, they were partly to blame for the 'confusion of roles.'

By "all but begging to be exploited for realpolitik purposes," Reiff argues, humanitarianism has abandoned its founding principles, and forfeited its independence.

Gerry Martone of the IRC is unpersuaded. "David is trying to turn this morally unambiguous work that we do into something that's suspect," he says. "Why is he blaming us? We're not the genocidal maniacs. The burden of his critique should fall on negligent governments and corrupt dictators."

Nor does Martone share Rieff's fondness for neutrality.

"What did Dante say? The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who remain neutral during a moral crisis. We are impartial. We will serve Hutus and Tutsis, Bosnians and Croats, but we are not neutral. We will take a stand. David says we should just deliver relief, but it's a compartmentalized perspective."

But Rieff is not saying that humanitarians should simply shut up and deliver aid. In his view, the activists of MSF have "the right idea": "You testify but you stay," except in "limiting cases" like Rwanda.

Yet, as Rieff acknowledges in his book, such testimony can prepare the ground for war - a possibility that he believes MSF "arrogantly refused to entertain seriously" when it reported on Serb massacres in Kosovo without taking a position on whether NATO should intervene. It's an odd criticism, since MSF would seem to have been doing exactly what Rieff advocates: bearing witness to human tragedy while standing aloof from state power.

Rieff's book is ultimately more powerful as a tormented diagnosis of humanitarianism's impasse than as a prescription for reform. Indeed, his call for going back to the basics seems to emerge less out of a newfound faith in neutrality - the flaws of which he is all too well aware - than out of disenchantment with the aggressive humanitarianism he himself espoused in Bosnia.

"The best we're going to do is a little bit of good in a wicked, unjust and in a certain sense fallen world," he says. "The hopes for the world's revalidation are just self-serving, self-flattering deceptions. What appeals to me about humanitarianism ultimately is that it makes no great moral claim. It doesn't assert that it can change the world. It only asserts that it will give a bed for the night."

Better a modest, restricted humanitarianism, he suggests, than a humanitarianism that dreams of repairing the world only to lose its soul in an alliance with states guided by self-interest.

"To those who say I have no solutions, I would say they're absolutely right. My argument is that because solutions are no good, humanitarianism must not be enlisted in a false and hopeless solution. My book is an effort to defend humanitarianism from its friends."

Adam Shatz is a writer based in New York.

Order the book at Amazon.com