War and emotion


2:37 pm - September 8th 2010

by Conor Foley    


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The publication of Tony Blair’s memoirs last week prompted a flurry of debate on face-book (is it just me or has face-book become the new blogging?) and even the creation of a special page in his honour.

I got drawn into a couple of comments threads of a couple of people’s pages, one of which was eventually deleted by its owner after Nick Cohen and I started abusing one another (to be fair to him, I started it).

Before we went down into the gutter, though, I had an exchange with another blogger, who posts at one of the Liberal Conspiracy’s sister sites, and who quite pointedly asked me why I drew so heavily on my personal experiences when writing. At one level this is quite an odd question.

After all, if I have just visited a Brazilian prison, or been a couple of streets away from a bomb attack which kills 100 people then it should be fairly obvious why I might mention it.

I think the point that he was making though, was slightly different, and it was a fair one.

I am not a journalist and, although I have sometimes relied on journalism to supplement my income, I have never seen it as my main career. I have spent the last twenty years working for human rights and humanitarian organizations and that is the perspective from which I write.

The New Humanist has just published a review of my last book The Thin Blue Line: how humanitarianism went to war. It is a very kind review, but it also makes an important political point. The reviewer notes that:

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, questions of humanitarian intervention (and even of “humanitarian war”) have been at the very heart of the fiercest political debates, and humanitarian organisations such as Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and Oxfam are looked to not just for their ability to provide medicine and food but as moral and political arbiters of world crises. At the same time, the relationships between humanitarian aid and human rights (a concept that Arendt herself scorned) have become deeply – some would say inextricably – intertwined. Many humanitarian organisations have expanded their briefs to include the upholding of human rights (and of economic development, which some now claim is a subset of rights), while human-rights organisations increasingly venture into the humanitarian and development fields. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing – a necessary, morally exigent advance or a hubristic, tragic blunder – is hotly contested, as a series of recent books (and real-world events) make clear.

The background to these books – and to the crisis of humanitarianism – is to be found in the 1990s, a period of high hopes and drastic failures for humanitarian aid groups and the United Nations. With the end of the Cold War, three tendencies emerged and created what was, in retrospect, a perfect storm. First, there was, among many leftists, a disillusion with what might be called “actually existing” politics – and with the socialist ideal itself, which was now apparently defunct; at the same time, the end of superpower rivalries led to optimistic forecasts about a dawning era of peace and prosperity. For many progressives, humanitarian action came to substitute for traditional political work – and to be seen as the only dependably good cause that remained; one result was the tremendous growth in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the expansion of their duties.

Second, there was the emergence of astonishingly brutal, apparently unstoppable, often non-ideological civil wars, whose combatants specifically targeted civilians in especially grotesque ways: vaginal mutilation in the Congo, mass rape in Darfur, amputation in Sierra Leone, kidnappings in Uganda, and the widespread use of children as soldiers and sex slaves. The political theorist John Keane has termed such conflicts “uncivil wars”, whose protagonists are beholden to no rules “except those of destructiveness – of people, property, the infrastructure, places of historical importance, even nature itself”. Such wars permanently damage what Keane calls “the ecology of human personality” and erode the “capacity to . . . act in solidarity” with others. They also call into question our commitment to – and the necessary preconditions for – international solidarity.

Third, as a result of, and response to, these other factors, there was a great increase in United Nations peacekeeping missions, though often in places where there was no peace to keep.

It was hard, at the time, for many activists, journalists, humanitarians, theorists and politicians to understand how interconnected these forces were. In retrospect, though, it is clear that they created a toxic brew, one that thrust the humanitarian movement into what David Rieff, in his book A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, called a “cognitive and moral meltdown”.

You can read the rest of the review –which covers my book and two others – by following the link. The review is the best article that I have read for a long time covering the dilemmas of contemporary human rights an humanitarianism in a time of conflict and why it is such a powerful and emotional subject.

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About the author
Conor Foley is a regular contributor and humanitarian aid worker who has worked for a variety of organisations including Liberty, Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He currently lives and works in Brazil and is a research fellow at the Human Rights Law Centre at the University of Nottingham. His books include Combating Torture: a manual for judges and prosecutors and A Guide to Property Law in Afghanistan. Also at: Guardian CIF
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Reader comments


Conor, you book whore. That is shameless.

Well it’s worked as I’ve just ordered the book.

Though I do hope it’s less dense than the review, albeit that I agree with this bit:
“States, however, are not the only ones who use humanitarianism as an alibi, a fig leaf or a moral detergent. So do political groups. The recent “Freedom Flotilla” of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara – which resulted in the deaths of nine pro-Palestinian civilian activists – is the perfect example of political evasion. The flotilla was organised by the Turkish NGO group known in the West as the IHH, and by the Free Gaza movement of which it is a part; neither is a “humanitarian” organisation. Indeed, both the Turkish group and the larger movement openly stated that the flotilla’s aim was to “break” the Israeli blockade of Gaza. One can agree or disagree with this mission, but one cannot call it anything but political.”

I plugged a couple of my articles as well Dave!

cjcjc. I agree with you on how the ‘humanitarian narrative’ has impacted on the political discourse, which is why I think it has implications that go beyond the humanitarian field

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/08/humanitarian-narrative-israel

5. Chris Baldwin

“For many progressives, humanitarian action came to substitute for traditional political work – and to be seen as the only dependably good cause that remained;”

Though humanitarianism is a good thing, ultimately these people got it wrong. They need to come home to socialism.

Off topic but very funny…..

“In an interview, Clarkson said that he was “hurt” after he discovered that Collins, a racing driver, had been writing a book detailing his seven years as Top Gear’s mythical character.

The Top Gear presenter said: “it was a shock. It was horrible, actually, because I liked him. He came round to my house and had drinks, and all the time he was writing a book, so I feel a bit hurt really.”

Despite the BBC taking Collins to court to prevent him publishing the book, fearing it would damage the show, the corporation has yet to officially announce Collins’ departure.

However, Clarkson seems to have done the job, saying: “put it this way, he’s history as far as we’re concerned. He’s sacked.”

He compared Collins to Gordon Gekko, an infamously greedy fictional investor played by Michael Douglas in the film Wall Street.”

Oh dear, when capitalists fall out…….

Blair’s book is just one big fuck you to the left. His last chance to do it one more time. So it is no wonder many people are angry.

Bliar says he does not support devolution, or banning fox hunting, or the freedom of information, act or just about everything he did . The only thing he thinks he got right was Iraq, and he was just a puppet for the neo cons.

A ludicrous book from a discredited and delusional comedy character. He was like Peter Sellers character Chancy Gardener.

sally’s reaction is so typical…a lefty thinks that he fucked the Labour Party….a normal person would say that he fucked the country and all the people who live there

troll “a normal person would say that he fucked the country and all the people who live there”

Yea , that is why so many tories supported him.

This book: Failing Intelligence, is about the intelligence sources invoked in support of the claims made about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion on 20 March 2003:
http://www.bitebackpublishing.com/uncategorized/failing-intelligence-by-brian-jones/

Dr Brian Jones, the author, was head of the branch in the Defence Intelligence Service tasked to assess incoming intelligence relating to weapons of mass destruction at the time of the events leading up to the invasion.

He submitted this letter of 8 July 2003 to the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr Kelly:
http://www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk/content/mod/mod_4_0011.pdf

The letter includes this passage:                       

“Your records will show that as [blanked out] and probably the most senior and experienced intelligence community official working on ‘WMD,’ I was so concerned about the manner in which intelligence assessment for which I had some responsibility were being presented in the dossier of 24 September 2002, that I was moved to write formally to your predecessor, Tony Crag, recording and explaining my reservations.”

In the discrete language of the civil service, Dr Jones disowned responsibility for the claims made in the government’s dossier published for a special session of Parliament on 24 September 2002:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/spl/hi/middle_east/02/uk_dossier_on_iraq/pdf/iraqdossier.pdf

If Liberal Conspiracy is going to start running advertisements disguised as copy, I trust it will be charging a decent rate.

Curmudgeon

The background to these books – and to the crisis of humanitarianism – is to be found in the 1990s, a period of high hopes and drastic failures for humanitarian aid groups and the United Nations. With the end of the Cold War, three tendencies emerged …

Second, there was the emergence of astonishingly brutal, apparently unstoppable, often non-ideological civil wars, whose combatants specifically targeted civilians in especially grotesque ways: vaginal mutilation in the Congo, mass rape in Darfur, amputation in Sierra Leone, kidnappings in Uganda, and the widespread use of children as soldiers and sex slaves.

What you describe didn’t ’emerge’ in the post-Cold War period. Most of those things could have been seen in the 1960s Congo or Angola, albeit that the perpetrators (or at least their leadership) might have claimed some form of Marxist politics.

@13 – More that the immediate postcolonial period led to a bunch of frozen conflicts that ‘unfroze’ with the end of the Cold War, as both the US and the Soviet Union let go of a bunch of various number of state and non-state actors they were supporting.

@14 – agreed – which I’d suggest is why, for example, the Congo appears to be a bit of a free-for-all these days. But atrocities in Africa didn’t start when the Berlin Wall fell.

Laban I agree with what Naadir said. But what the reviewer (and my book) argue is a bit more than that.

In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s the ‘left’ tended to pitch their analysis of these conflicts in terms of ‘anti-imperialism’ or ‘solidarity with left-leaning liberation movements’ or ‘anti-Americanism’ (ie hostility to the foreign policy of the US government). Some on the left still think in that way, but during the 1990s a significant section of left opinion began to view things instead through a human rights or humanitarian lens. The book (and the review) take this view as their starting point and then analyse and discuss it a bit further.

If Liberal Conspiracy is going to start running advertisements disguised as copy, I trust it will be charging a decent rate.

What are you talking about, I have to pay* Conor to write here!

*in beer of course…

Have you read Phillip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent? Do you have a view on his ideas?

For those that haven’t, Bobbitt characterises terror broadly, in contrast to ‘consent’ it includes typical terrorist acts but also natural disasters, medical epidemics and so on. By that reckoning, the link between humanitarian NGO’s and war and intervention is obvious.

His notion of the ‘market state’ as a new consitutional order that isn’t adequatley supported by our current insitutions is also pretty insightful. From what I recall he supports the removal or Saddam, but that the way it was executed was terrible and the war lacked legitimacy (due to the outdated insitutions).

I have found it quite persuasive with it’s characterisation of different levels of soverignity and when a country forfeits it’s full soverignity for what he describes as a ‘transparent’ soverignity that would allow other states to intervene to protect civillians from the broadly defined ‘terror’.

Conor, your book has just arrived, but can I just say – I hate the font!

More bad book news for TB.

Just out, Marc Weller: Iraq and the use of force in international affairs (OUP 2010)
http://ilreports.blogspot.com/2010/09/weller-iraq-and-use-of-force-in.html

cjcjc you can’t judge a book by its cover, but the font is probably a reliable guide


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  5. Frank T

    War and emotion | Liberal Conspiracy: The political theorist John Keane has termed such conflicts “uncivil wars”, … http://bit.ly/a5vtR2

  6. Get Political Fund » Blog Archive » War and emotion | Liberal Conspiracy

    […] Read the original post: War and emotion | Liberal Conspiracy […]

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