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The Politics of Humanitarianism: Some Considerations

Published in MCRG Kolkata
Volume: 56
Issue: 1
Pages: 1 - 20

Humanitarianism and its political derivate, humanitarian intervention, exploded on to the scene a decade back.1The concept of humanitarian intervention was justified as a manifest improvement over the Agenda for Peace approach to global peacekeeping to a more muscular way that sought to protect people from violence across the world and thereby advance the idea of human rights as an ethical imperative or a moral trump over several other competing ideas predicated on claims of juridical sovereignty. This study makes several claims concerning this rather unprecedented dilation of humanitarianism in international politics. First, I show that the idea has evolved from being based on religious piety and charity to crisis mitigation and expedient to one of neoliberal governmentality, a right to save immortal souls more than the perishable bodies. It is at the same time a politics of life and victimhood, which discriminates care as much by ascription and expedient as by the concerns of the well-being and health of the host. Secondly, and as a logical corollary to the first, this requires us to understand humanitarianism as a variant of Foucault’s ideas of biopower and biopolitics, understood as a politics of life, and Derrida’s ideas of hospitality, gift, and forgiveness to understand the challenges of the politics of protection. It explains how the idea of protection is central to humanitarianism and its derivative governmentalism in the form of modern population politics. Thirdly, the paper argues that the modern form of humanitarianism is a product of modern neo-liberal capitalism rather than a form of altruism or love for humanity. Fourthly, I argue that idea of humanitarianism is global in scope, and international humanitarian law as a regulatory basis of global humanitarian governance and the governance practices in the domains of food and health bear a clear testimony to this fact. My central argument is that humanitarian protection is a form of biopolitical governmentality, and, therefore, all contexts of humanitarian protection would show limits and prioritisation of lives. This study argues that the innate diversity of conflicting ethical considerations makes it impossible to arrive at a sanitised version of humanitarianism that can be justified in abstract philosophical terms. Rather, humanitarianism must be understood politically, and considerations of interests, both economic and strategic, are central to the concept.

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Published in MCRG Kolkata
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