Refugees in International Relations

By Alexander Betts; Gil Loescher | Go to book overview

5
Humanitarianism, Paternalism,
and the UNHCR

Michael Barnett


ABSTRACT

This chapter explores how the discourse of humanitarianism contains elements
of both emancipation and domination, argues that such seemingly contradic-
tory impulses are best understood through the concept of paternalism, and
illustrates these possibilities in the case of the United Nations High Commis-
sioner for Refugees (UNHCR)’s repatriation policies. Section I provides the
conceptual inventory that informs this argument. It begins by outlining the
different forms of power, focusing on productive power both because it is over-
looked by scholars of international relations and because it provides the clearest
conceptual link to paternalism. Paternalism, the interference with a person’s
liberty on the grounds that it is in his or her best interests, partly constitutes
humanitarianism and helps to account for the latter’s fusing of care and control.
While paternalism has a sordid reputation, overlooked is that there are defen-
sible reasons for paternalism, and humanitarian action is often justified by them.
Consequently, the conceptual and practical challenge is to reconcile our general
repugnance with paternalism with the recognition that some paternalistic prac-
tices are justified some of the time. Section II then uses the UNHCR to explore
these themes in the power and paternalism of the international humanitarian
order. The UNHCR is a humanitarian organization, and as a humanitarian
organization it has considerable moral and expert authority. It has used that
authority to expand its protection and assistance activities to more populations
around the world over the decades. This same authority not only gave UNHCR
the opportunity to provide more relief to more displaced populations, but it also
conferred on it the role of spokesperson for and guardian of refugees. The under-
lying assumption, in other words, is that UNHCR knows what is in the best
interests of refugees—a population that is often assumed to be too uninformed
to know what is in its best interests or too weak to act on them. This is pater-
nalism by any other name, and UNHCR’s assistance and protection practices
illustrate how compassion and care exist alongside command and control. The
conclusion reflects on international paternalism in practice and in theory.

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