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The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

The West’s Retreat from Humanitarianism

19th August 2014

Today is World Humanitarian Day. The event commemorates the 19 August 2003 bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad. Among the dead was the UN’s top envoy Sergio Viera de Mello with whom I had spent a day in Geneva shortly before he left for Iraq. Last week UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon published a report on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) entitled “Fulfilling our Collective Responsibility: International Assistance and the Responsibility to Protect”. With American and British forces active again in Iraq on the face of it R2P and humanitarianism are alive and well. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Firstly, humanitarianism was essentially a European idea in which Europeans did not invest. In April 1999 then British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a famous speech in Chicago which laid the groundwork for humanitarianism and the merging of values with interests – the Doctrine of the Value-Interest. That was then and this is now. Today, the idea of humanitarianism looks like yesterday’s idea of yesterday’s man. Indeed, in the soon-to-be wake of Afghanistan humanitarianism looks to austerity-mired Europeans like a recipe for the endless engagement of small, ill-equipped and under-funded military forces in dangerous, difficult and costly places in pursuit of ill-defined goals made more unclear by empty political rhetoric.

Secondly, without the support of the US humanitarianism became just yet more empty European political prose. Thirdly, 1999 was also the high-water mark of Western power. On 12 June 1999 Milosevic began his withdrawal from Kosovo and the tragic Wars of the Yugoslav succession came to an end in which over 140,000 people had been slaughtered and 4 million displaced. It seemed for a moment that the Doctrine of the Value-Interest would know no bounds. Indeed, emboldened by a successful 2000 military intervention in Sierra Leone Tony Blair became the High Priest of Humanitarianism. Fourthly, humanitarianism and the Value-Interest were also inextricably linked with the then concept of European defence. Back in June 1998 I wrote a piece for the “New Statesman”, a Labour Party-leaning magazine called “Time to Bite the Eurobullet”. The piece called on Britain to help lead the creation of a meaningful autonomous European defence project and laid out the framework for what became the 1998 St Malo Declaration with France and eventually the EU’s 1999 Helsinki Declaration. Scroll on fifteen years and European defence is effectively dead.

There is one other reason humanitarianism is in retreat – the loss of public support. At the weekend Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC that, “…alongside the humanitarian crisis, there is also a political and extremism crisis in Iraq that has a direct effect on us back here in the UK”. Each and every time Britain has engaged on a humanitarian mission it has led to thousands of refugees seeking refuge in Britain. English society in particular has been progressively destabilised by the arrival of significant numbers of traumatised people from traumatised societies in traumatised regions often with views and beliefs markedly different from the “British values” Prime Minister Cameron claims to champion.

Britain and the wider West must not abandon the principles of humanitarianism for it is those principles that defines the civilised West and help to make the world a better place. Indeed, until balance is restored between values and interests humanitarianism will continue to retreat and any sense of international community with it. For all that I pay genuine tribute to the brave aid workers who have given their lives for the sake of humanitarianism, the better world in which they clearly believed and for whom World Humanitarian Day was rightly created.


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