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2019's biggest challenge: the humanitarian sell-out

Written by Christina Bennett


What is this year’s biggest humanitarian crisis? It’s not Yemen, Venezuela, Democratic Republic of the Congo, or any other single crisis.

To me, the real humanitarian challenge for 2019 is what all these catastrophes have in common: the wholesale and unapologetic subordination of human lives to other gains. In other words, a ‘humanitarian sell-out’.

In his book, renowned Africa expert Alex de Waal called this ‘counter-humanitarianism’, describing it as ‘a new political ideology and approach to conflicts that legitimises political and military action that is indifferent to human life.’

Sure, humanitarian action has always fallen prey to political interests and material gains. But what differentiates today’s counter-humanitarianism from past situations is that it is more pervasive, more codified, pursued as doctrine and practiced by ‘rogue’ and more established governments alike.

It creates a pattern of acceptable behaviour that humanitarian organisations are finding harder – and riskier – to challenge or undo. In the end, counter-humanitarian tactics only ever seem to be ineffective and counter-productive.

Here’s what counter-humanitarianism looks like in 2019:

Counter-humanitarianism as criminality

The most visible form of counter-humanitarianism today is in Yemen. Since 2011 a proxy war, a near-total economic blockade and the obstruction of relief efforts, driven by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, have left 24 million people in need of aid.

Linked to this is the degree to which many governments, including the UK and US, are complicit in Yemenis’ starvation, using counter-terrorism laws to block aid, criminalise humanitarian organisations’ work in the name of national security, and prosecute those who travel abroad to join terrorist organisations.

These strategies have been neither wise nor effective – wasting aid money, enabling corruption, fuelling black markets and prolonging suffering.

Counter-humanitarianism as control

The manipulative use of Venezuela’s economic crisis by President Maduro has been a critical tool in his quest to maintain legitimacy and control. The human cost can be felt across the country.

More than half of the 5.3 million people in Caracas are without regular running water. Nine out of 10 households don’t have enough money to buy food. The health system is on the brink of collapse and three million Venezuelans – almost 10% of the population – have fled the country.

Maduro’s refusal to accept responsibility for the current crisis and invite foreign aid is backfiring, as both the UN and regional governments gear up for expanded aid efforts and the US flirts with the idea of military intervention.

Counter-humanitarianism as a trump card

In the US, President Trump is using counter-humanitarian practices to fuel anti-immigration sentiment and gain political advantage.

His separation of 2,654 children from their families at the US’s southern border last spring directly contravened global and national refugee and anti-human trafficking conventions.

His counter-factual narrative regarding crisis-level rises in cross-border movements and the ‘illegal’ status of Central American arrivals also gained traction, despite the fact that Central Americans have a legal right to seek and apply for asylum.

The policy failed to either deter migration or earn him points with his voter base, as two-thirds of Americans opposed the policy. However, a new family separation policy is currently under consideration and Trump continues to use counter-humanitarianism to argue for an anti-immigration wall along the US southern border.   

Counter-humanitarianism as nationalism

Whether it's the long-standing abuses against the Rohingya in Rakhine State or the long-simmering borderland conflict in Kachin province, the government of Myanmar and its army have used the denial of humanitarian assistance at the expense of the protections and rights of its minority communities.

These include arbitrary arrest and torture, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances, forced labour, denial of free movement and clearance of villages. For minorities, the state offers no protection and there is increasingly restricted access for international humanitarian and human rights organisations.

Counter-humanitarianism as containment

Within Europe, asylum and migration policies continue to promote deterrence and containment, often directly contravening the international conventions Europeans championed in years past.

Current deterrent policies – arresting ‘smugglers’ in the Mediterranean, or paying countries, such as Libya or Sudan, to enforce border control – only proliferate smuggling networks and compromise migrant safety

Policies seeking to ‘contain’ migration by increasing development funding and access to labour markets, while potentially beneficial, are not matched with respect for refugee rights as enshrined in the Refugee Convention.

The ripple effect these behaviours create in other refugee-hosting countries means there are fewer places where refugees can go to seek protection.

What can we do?

Going into 2019, counter-humanitarianism has become the new normal. But as today’s crises attest, government indifference to human life is an unconvincing and objectionable strategy on political, tactical, legal and moral grounds.

Humanitarian organisations must step up their engagement and advocacy in three ways:

  1. Support local protection initiatives

    In the face of violence, civilians are not idle. They try to protect themselves and their loved ones and, in some cases, actively fight and resist. In Myanmar, civil society organisations have taken the lead, drawing on the strengths and rich inter-connectedness of Kachin clan-based society. International humanitarian initiatives should ensure that their interventions complement rather than co-opt these local efforts.
  2. Focus on national initiatives

    We need to give governments practical suggestions for reducing civilian harm, remind them of their accountability to international law, and find ways of incorporating its elements into national legislation. The US government has been unexpectedly receptive to initiatives by national non-governmental organisations to incorporate policies on minimising civilian harm and use of explosive weapons. This might serve as a model for other civil society initiatives looking to push protection policy discussions from global to national levels.
  3. Seek out strange bedfellows

    Countering the humanitarian sell-out will require uncommon alliances between a range of human rights, diplomatic and civic interests. These include municipal-level protections for undocumented migrants, refugees and asylum seekers; partnerships with financial institutions to work around counter-terrorism policies; and organisations such as CanDo, which crowdsources medical relief in Syria. These initiatives represent a new generation of humanitarians and new kinds of partnership that deserve our attention and support.