Reflections on post-humanitarianism in dark times

British opposition to search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean and Polish pseudo-theological justifications not to help refugees exploit the insecurities of the humanitarian movement.

‘Flight of the Swallows’ by Giacomo Ball (1913). Photo: Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.As
the Mediterranean death toll shows no signs of abating, humanitarians
involved in addressing the crisis are having a difficult time. Recent academic critiques have pointed
out the flaws of contemporary international humanitarianism, noting
humanitarians’ white saviour complex, their complicity with the forces of
militarism and capitalism, the ways in which they deprive the people they are
ostensibly helping of agency, and the ways they trap them in a condition of
perpetual depoliticised victimhood. Equally recently humanitarian activities of
various kinds have been the target of political undermining and outright
assault coming from the political right. One striking example is the official British position to oppose search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean because, as the subsequent Tory governments have claimed, such activities act as a “pull factor” that simply tempts more migrants into risking their lives. This claim has circulated also elsewhere
in Europe. Meanwhile in the United States the concern of the new administration
has been not so much with repelling refugees as with outright banning their
arrival.

Humanitarianism
may be defined at its most basic as “concern for human welfare as a primary or
pre-eminent moral good; action, or the disposition to act, on the basis of this
concern rather than for pragmatic or strategic reasons” (OED online). This broadest
definition applies to anyone acting on the grounds of a moral commitment to the
alleviation of suffering. This includes members of the humanitarian
establishment in well-funded international organizations as well as activists
in start-up NGOs who would likely bristle at being called ‘humanitarians’
precisely because they are so keenly aware of the dubious track record of some
of the biggest humanitarian players.

If
the field is so full of tensions, why lump very different actors together?
After all they enter the scene with differential power, resources and political
commitments. But to consider them together in this context makes strategic
sense. The other side, the anti-humanitarian right, is not making distinctions
in attacking humanitarians. It bashes UN envoys for being naïve just as it
ridicules the “leftists” and “anarchists” who protest border fences and migrant
detention. Such attacks (which are not linked here so as not to raise traffic
to the sites that host them) afford us a moment of clarity, to ask what
humanitarianism means at its most basic. Still, in recognition of tensions that
animate the field, I am inclined to join others who argue that today it might be better to speak of post-humanitarianism. This…

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