Academic journal article Melbourne University Law Review

'We, the Redeemers' - Hubris and Humility in International Humanitarianism

Academic journal article Melbourne University Law Review

'We, the Redeemers' - Hubris and Humility in International Humanitarianism

Article excerpt

You, the People: The United Nations, Transitional Administration, and State-Building by Simon Chesterman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) pages i-xx, 1-296. Price A$170.00 (hardcover). ISBN 0 19 926348 5.

The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism by David Kennedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004) pages i-xxix, 1-368. Price A$49.95 (hardcover). ISBN 0 691 11686 5.


I    Introduction
II   Historical Background
III  'Hubris' and 'Humility'
IV   The Dark Sides of Virtue
V    You, the People
VI   Conclusion


The emergence of a globalised discourse of human rights, especially in the past decade, has served to challenge the very notions of state sovereignty and non-intervention that permitted the establishment of the United Nations ('UN') 60 years ago. Its key roles of preventing war, brokering peace agreements, monitoring peace accords, enforcing peace, providing humanitarian assistance to the needy in post-conflict environments and engaging in state-building and reconstruction efforts have all implicitly recognised limits to respecting state sovereignty and the practice of non-intervention. In this setting, namely the diminution of absolute state sovereignty, the most compelling justifications for engagement have emerged from a global humanitarian culture formed by the actions and arguments of a host of national and international institutions and organisations. In his new book, The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism, (1) Harvard international law Professor David Kennedy refers to this movement as 'international humanitarianism'. Simon Chesterman's recent book, You, the People: The United Nations, Transitional Administration, and State-Building, (2) focuses in some detail on one aspect of this humanitarianism: the involvement of the UN and nation-states in the activities of peacekeeping, peace enforcement and state-building in Bosnia, East Timor, Sierra Leone and, most recently, Iraq.

Both Kennedy and Chesterman suggest a conceptual paradigm to give coherence to the instances of international humanitarianism. Both authors are acutely aware of the paradoxes, contradictions and practical difficulties underlying the volte-face from non-intervention towards forms of intervention and assistance in countries that fairly recently aspired to escape the shackles of colonialism and imperialism. The dilemma presented is neatly captured by Vartan Gregorian in the foreword to You, the People:

   The very nature of the relationship between external benefactor
   and internal beneficiary inevitably raised the spectres of
   paternalism and neo-colonialism that continue to colour
   perceptions of the challenge to this day. A 'benevolent
   autocracy'--the apt term used in [You, The People] to describe
   the form in which the assistance has often been provided--is,
   after all, still an autocracy. (3)

There is a deep irony indeed in seeking to change people in ways largely dictated by external standards (rather than local processes) that for the most part are viewed as non-negotiable, when the overall goal of intervention is political self-determination and sustainable development for those people. While the language of humanitarianism provides an answer to the question, 'why get involved in such problems?', it does not readily address the practical and moral implications of doing so, either for those who would save (the 'redeemers') (4) and those deemed in need of saving.

In this review article, I want to suggest that we are only beginning to realise the limitations and consequences of our actions when we act as international humanitarians, whether as international lawyers, human rights activists, peace workers, diplomats, humanitarian assistance workers, peacekeepers, or capacity-builders. Works such as The Dark Sides of Virtue and You, the People make important contributions to the process of individual and collective self-reflection that should, and must, accompany (if not also ideally anticipate) the various kinds of interventions in post-conflict societies and in failed and failing states. …

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