Goodbye to humanitarianism?

Author: Joël Glasman
Date: 24. May 2024

How the liberal consensus on humanitarian principles is crumbling

The war in Gaza might be a potential tipping point for humanitarianism. Will the war mark a turning point for liberal democracies to turn away from humanitarianism?

Berlin had worked hard to earn the reputation of an ally of humanitarianism: Whether in Afghanistan, Syria or Ukraine: Germany has been committed to providing humanitarian assistance. It was both one of the countries with the highest intake of refugees and one of the top donor countries in terms of humanitarian expenditure. Human rights, international humanitarian law (IHL) and refugee law were key tools of the German democracy. While it was certainly not perfect in practice, the concept of a value-driven foreign policy was at least formally upheld – until Gaza.

Regarding the Gaza war, the German government has publicly questioned the work of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Before the UN’s highest court even ruled on the charges of genocide in the Gaza Strip, the government declared that the indictment “has no basis whatsoever.” The German government also criticised the International Criminal Court (ICC) when its chief prosecutor requested an arrest warrant against both the Hamas leaders responsible for the barbaric massacre of 7 October 2023 and Israel’s prime minister. Furthermore, it has frozen funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and has only mildly condemned the deaths of 250 humanitarian aid workers, compared to similar events in Ukraine. Does Gaza represent an exception from the value-driven foreign policy, or has it become the new normal, in line with similar behaviour by many Western states? Are liberal democracies now abandoning humanitarianism?

The alliance between liberal democracies and humanitarianism began over half a century ago. During the Cold War, the West sought to join forces with humanitarian organisations. Humanitarian values allowed it to call out the authoritarianism of socialist regimes. In countries where Europe could not intervene directly, it financed refugee aid and provided basic foodstuffs. The language of human rights found its way into the public discourse in the context of the fight against communism.

Liberal foundations started funding NGOs. During the Biafra War in Nigeria (1967-1970), organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Caritas Internationalis and the Catholic Relief Service began to operate in Africa. New aid organisations, such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), were founded. In the press, the word “genocide” came to be used to describe the massacre in Nigeria. Comparisons with the Holocaust were common, without fear of Holocaust relativisation. “A as in Auschwitz, B as in Biafra“, stated the press at the time. The humanitarian interventions in Cambodia (1967-1980) and Ethiopia (1984-1985) completed this alliance against communist regimes. Aid organisations became the beacons of liberal universalism.

In the 1990s, humanitarianism was a broad consensus. Its triumph followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the historian Michael Barnett, this moment marked the beginning of the golden age of liberal humanitarianism. The common enemy was no longer communism, but disasters in the Global South: civil wars and natural hazards gave rise to a new form of interventionism. “Humanitarian reason,” as Didier Fassin writes, became part of Western democracies’ DNA. By the early 1990s, there were 6,000 international non-governmental organisations, ten years later there were 26,000. Aid organisations followed NATO troops when they went to war, and focused on reconstruction funding (Afghanistan, Iraq, Sahel). By providing humanitarian assistance, they concealed the lack of political solutions when governments refused to intervene (Rwanda, Myanmar). Humanitarian organisations enjoyed public recognition. UNHCR, UNICEF, ICRC, the Red Cross, and MSF were honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize. Those who worked for a humanitarian organisation enjoyed a high level of prestige. The founder of MSF, Bernard Kouchner, became Foreign Minister, the European Union Commissioner for Humanitarian Action Kristalina Georgieva became Director of the International Monetary Fund, and the UN Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres became UN Secretary-General. Humanitarian organisations did not prevent wars or massacres, but they gave liberalism a human face.

The alliance between liberalism and humanitarianism first crumbled in the US. George Bush’s call for a “global war on terror” in 2001 set a new tone. The Bush administration declared that IHL did not apply to the terrorists of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. This attacked the principle of “neutrality,” another fundamental principle of humanitarian aid. Relief organisations that wanted to help not only the victims of terrorism but also the victims of NATO, were suspected of condoning terrorism. The departure from humanitarianism gradually became evident in Europe on three levels:

Firstly, at the level of international law. The norms of the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention are being contested. New international treaties such as the 2015 Valletta Agreement, the 2017 EU-Turkey Agreement, and numerous bilateral agreements undermine the principle of granting refugee status. Legal norms are nullified through bureaucratic measures. The European Court of Human Rights is increasingly condemning European countries for mistreating migrants and disregarding their rights: Greece for shooting refugees, Italy for abuses in Lampedusa, and France for imprisoning babies. In February 2024, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights warned: “Across Europe, individuals and organisations are facing growing harassment, intimidation, violence and criminalisation simply for contributing to the protection of the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. European states must stop this repression.” Liberal governments are not only attacking international norms but also those who defend them. Italy is harassing sea rescuers in the Mediterranean. The French president denigrates aid workers who “play into the hands of smugglers.” The war in Gaza highlights this shift in attitude towards international law.

Secondly, in terms of funding. Liberal democracies have traditionally been among the largest donors to humanitarian organisations. Together, Western Europe and the US account for almost 80% of global humanitarian funding. The US, the UK, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Switzerland have long been major donors, while Germany has rapidly caught up since the Syrian crisis and now ranks second in the world in terms of humanitarian aid funding. But the need is growing faster than the funding. These days, the humanitarian system is experiencing record deficits.

The UN has set 0.7% of gross national income as a minimum target for humanitarian and development aid. However, only a few countries reach this level. Many are even cutting ODA spending drastically, such as Sweden, the former self-proclaimed “humanitarian superpower,” by almost 15% and the UK by around a quarter since 2019. The German government’s budget plan for 2024 envisages a drastic reduction in humanitarian aid from €2.7 billion to €2.2 billion. Overall, humanitarian aid provided internationally so far this year has fallen by a third compared to the same period last year. Various aid organisations are facing major financial difficulties. UN agencies, the ICRC and NGOs are laying off aid workers and closing projects. The ICRC had to reduce its budget by 13%.

Thirdly, at the level of discourse, voices that point to the rights of war victims and refugees are delegitimized. The culture war against “do-gooders” is raging. In the UK, the government is attacking the Supreme Court for opposing plans to deport migrants to Rwanda. In France, the government criticizes the highest court of the republic, the Court Constitutionnelle, because it classifies a large part of the new migration law as unconstitutional. In Germany, the judges of the Federal Constitutional Court were criticized because they ruled that benefit cuts for refugees were unconstitutional.

Simply reminding people that men, women and children have rights regardless of their religion and skin colour is perceived as a provocation and a relativization of terrorism. Slogans that were once the monopoly of right-wing extremist parties are finding their way into the media, including “wokism,” “asylum tourism,” or “post-colonial terror.” A “Congress on Palestine,” which was supposed to provide information about the suffering of civilians in the Gaza Strip, was dissolved unlawfully by the German Ministry of the Interior. A doctor who worked for MSF in Gaza was denied entry to Germany – also unlawfully, as the administrative court in Potsdam found. A student protest about the Gaza war was disbanded at the Free University of Berlin, again without respect for constitutional rights.

In Gaza, hospitals, schools and refugee camps were bombed, and aid workers were killed. According to an investigation by Human Rights Watch, Israeli forces deliberately shot down aid convoys and aid compounds at least eight times between October 2023 and May 2024. MSF, Medical Aid for Palestinians, World Central Kitchen and UNRWA were bombed. Those who continue to support Netanyahu’s government with arms deliveries and slogans are forfeiting their hard-earned credibility. As a high-ranking diplomat recently remarked: “All the work we have done with the Global South is lost… Forget the norms, forget the world order. They will never listen to us again.”

The war in Gaza is a warning sign. Aid agencies acknowledge that the rise of right-wing populism poses a threat to their work because it opposes humanitarian values. At the same time, liberal governments hesitate to oppose it or even join the populist’s game. Humanitarian organisations should seek cooperation with institutions that are committed to democratic values – including trade unions, civil society organisations, and universities. Most importantly, democratic actors should be more attentive to the warnings of humanitarian organisations. Not because they always have good solutions at hand (humanitarian aid is often not the solution, but a first step at best). But because humanitarian organisations have a keen eye for emergencies and can identify warning signs of social collapse. “The reality of urgency, fragility and vulnerability has been experienced by many societies around the world before us,” correctly writes historian Achille Mbembé.

Humanitarian organisations are well aware of what is at stake in times of crisis and how quickly institutions can be overthrown. Violations of IHL signal violations of the rules-based and democratic order. Or to use the words of Walter Benjamin: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of exception’ in which we live is the rule.”

Joël Glasman is Professor of African History at the University of Bayreuth.