International law and political humanitarianism

From The Thin Blue Line: How humanitarianism went to war, by Conor Foley (Verso, 2010), pp. 15-16.

Both human rights and humanitarian NGOs recognize that they operate in a political environment and that their reports can be used for purposes they may not agree with. In December 2002, when the British government released a dossier of human rights violations in Iraq largely culled from Amnesty International reports, the organization accused it of being ‘opportunistic and selective’ in its use of the material. Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, but there was no evidence that repression was increasing in Iraq at the time or that country was experiencing the kind of ongoing humanitarian crisis that might provide legal justification for an invasion. The invasion itself was publicly opposed by most human rights and humanitarian NGOs who argued that it would bring increased suffering to the people of the region. Many also described it as a violation of international law, and this brought the discussion of dry legal theory to a much wider audience.

One advantage of international human rights and humanitarian law is that it provides an objective framework within which humanitarians can locate their activities. Much of the discussion about both political advocacy and ‘rights-based’ programming has involved drawing up codes of conduct and statements of principle based on international legal instruments. Starting with the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, many argue that the growing body of international human rights law also provides an important normative structure for their work. However, there is still considerable disagreement about what international law actually means on certain subjects. Once they move away from the principles of neutrality and impartiality, it is also difficult to see how humanitarian agencies can ever be regarded as anything but political organizations.

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