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  1. The Weekend Essay
20 January 2024

The death of humanitarianism

How the West is paying the price for the unipolar moment.

By Lily Lynch

They called it “the 21st century arriving early”. In April 1999, the New York Times declared Kosovo a template for the new millennium. Nato’s humanitarian intervention in the Kosovo War that spring would augur a new era in which human rights would trump national sovereignty. No head of state, irrespective of their democratic legitimacy, would have the right to slaughter their own citizens. In the future, “the Western democracies”, led by the United States, would be tasked with protecting people from violations of their human rights – anywhere they were under threat. An uncharacteristically optimistic Human Rights Watch report from that year christened it “the beginning of a new era for the human rights movement”. Václav Havel, the Czech playwright and darling of democratic transition, concurred. “Human beings are more important than the state,” he said. “The idol of state sovereignty must inevitably dissolve.”

Bernard Kouchner, the first UN mission chief in Kosovo, was similarly hopeful. The former communist student activist from France, who had protested the Vietnam War and French colonialism in Algeria in 1968, wrote of the incipient world in a 1999 op-ed for the LA Times. “Can we dream of a 21st century where the horrors of the 20th will not be repeated?’” Kouchner asked. “The answer is a hopeful yes – if, as part of the emergent world order, a new morality can be codified in the ‘right to intervention’ against abuses of national sovereignty.” This era would marry the Kouchner generation’s 1960s activist sensibilities and internationalist affectations with unprecedented military, economic and political power. At the end of the 20th century, wars of nationalism naturally shocked the Western conscience, but war waged in defence of human rights would imbue it with a new moral force.

This was a different internationalism than the kind that Kouchner and others of his ilk had embraced as insurgent students. As Kristin Ross writes in May ’68 and Its Afterlives (2002), “The colonial or third-world other of the 1960s [was] refigured and transformed from militant and articulate fighter and thinker to ‘victim’ by a defence of human rights strictly identified as the rights of the victim, the rights of those who do not have the means to argue their rights, or create a political solution to their own problems.” Solidarity with the subaltern now meant Western aid and rescue, but always with political conditions.

Yet that new, utopian world envisaged at the height of the unipolar moment never quite arrived. It now feels more distant than ever: the Joe Biden administration was supposed to represent a return to “normalcy” following four years of Donald Trump, a steady hand guiding the US-led liberal order predicated on human rights and democracy. But all of that has fallen apart in Gaza, rendering Western invocations of “human rights” hollow. Further, international human rights law and the Genocide Convention are being deployed against Israel, the closest ally of the US. The West is facing the consequences of its own creation: the principles and institutions of which it once envisioned itself as the sole arbiter turned back on itself.

But South Africa’s genocide case against Israel, which the latter denies, before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is also emblematic of a broader global shift: a country of the so-called Global South, unwilling to play the role of passive supplicant in the face of so much horror, is effectively using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. Whatever the outcome of South Africa’s argument, it seems clear that in the emergent multipolar world, the West’s liberal norms will have to co-exist alongside a more assertive, political Global South.

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The West is also facing challenges to the liberal internationalist order from competitors like China, which is rapidly expanding its diplomatic and economic influence across the so-called developing world. In contrast with the West, humanitarian and development aid from China is based on the “South-South cooperation” and is not conditioned on compliance with liberal norms like human rights. China is thus building an alternative order, supposedly based on respect for sovereignty. As Dawn C Murphy writes in China’s Rise in the Global South (2022), “Although China does not yet seek to replace the existing international order, if the current liberal order unravels or excludes China, this alternative order could serve as the foundation of China’s… relations with… much of the developing world.”

Rather than leading the world into a more humane future, the US now appears isolated from it: in successive UN resolutions on humanitarian obligations in Gaza since 7 October, the US has voted in opposition, and it has often been alone. The more than 24,000 deaths there have been enabled by ample American military aid and its Security Council activism meant to ensure Israel’s war continues – to borrow the Biden administration’s line on the conflict in Ukraine – “for as long as it takes”. Today, the zealous rhetoric that accompanied 1990s US-led humanitarian interventions has been replaced by weak American appeals for “humanitarian pauses”.

It can be difficult to understand why there was ever so much faith in such an order. And yet as 2000 approached, there was hope that the withering of state sovereignty would create a better, more interconnected world. The thinking went that television and the nascent internet would deliver news and pictures of distant suffering to Western audiences, who would then exert pressure on their governments to intervene in foreign conflicts. Meanwhile, in the Balkans, the presence of television cameras gave rise to dark jokes. “May your house be seen on CNN,” went one characteristically Bosnian curse.

But social media has ended network TV’s monopoly on the dissemination of pictures of distant horrors. CNN faithfully transmitted curated news and images of mass atrocities perpetrated by the West’s enemies; social media has revealed the brutalities in which the West is complicit. The recent moral panic over TikTok, which has been blamed for fomenting “anti-Israel” sentiment in Western zoomers, reveals the degree to which social media has upset traditional information warfare. Significantly, it has also permitted victims to fight in that war themselves. The Irish lawyer Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, representing South Africa at the ICJ, put it starkly: “[This is] the first genocide in history where its victims are broadcasting their own destruction in real time, in the desperate, so far vain, hope that the world might do something.”

Social media has thus lifted the curtain on what much of the world has always known: that invocations of human rights and humanitarian intervention are selective. The invasion of Iraq made it clear that there would be no redress for victims of war crimes perpetrated by the West: the US and its Nato allies have long appeared almost structurally shielded from accountability. For the West, the “idol of sovereignty” has remained very much intact. As Carl Schmitt said, “sovereign is he who decides the exception”.

During the 1990s, a new international criminal justice system was established to prosecute abuses of human rights. The ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established at the height of the Bosnian War in 1993; a court for the Rwandan genocide followed in 1994. The Rome Statute was adopted in 1998, establishing the permanent International Criminal Court, or ICC. Predictably, the ICC struggled with legitimacy outside of the West. The US’s notorious American Service Members’ Protection Act, also known as the Hague Invasion Act, provided gratuitous evidence that the “international” criminal court would not be so international at all: the 2002 law “authorises the use of military force to liberate any American or citizen of a US-allied country being held by the court”. African indictees have frequently denounced the ICC as a “white man’s court”. While these criticisms are clearly self-interested, the charge is not without merit. Today, several countries involved in major conflicts, including the US, Russia and Israel, do not recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC. Further, the court has proved vulnerable to lobbying efforts. In 2015, Israel lobbied ICC member states to slash funding for the tribunal after it launched an inquiry into Israeli war crimes.

One relic of the 1990s that seems curiously absent from recent wars has been “responsibility to protect”, or R2P. Responsibility to protect was supposed to ensure that there would never be another Bosnia or Rwanda on the international community’s watch: in 2005, UN member states adopted the doctrine of R2P as a non-binding norm that established states’ “responsibility” to protect populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing and other crimes. If a state failed to do so, then the international community was responsible “to take collective action”, including military intervention, to stop it. And yet, no Western government has invoked R2P in response to ethnic cleansing campaigns in Sudan, Nagorno-Karabakh or Gaza.

The death of R2P seems to have begun in 2011 in Libya, when the Security Council passed a series of resolutions that cited the principle for the first time. Resolution 1,973 would partially sanction the coming Nato military intervention intended to end the country’s civil war: the US, UK and France voted in favour of the resolution, while China and Russia abstained. In the seven months that followed, Nato forces – primarily Britain, France and the US – dropped more than 7,700 precision-guided bombs on the country, exacerbating a brutal civil war. Muammar al-Gaddafi met his end that October. In the words of the then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton, “we came, we saw, he died”.

For Russia, it was a lesson learned. When the US attempted to gain Security Council authorisation for humanitarian intervention in Syria, Russia made sure to exercise its veto power this time. And yet, as the British political scientist Richard Sakwa has stressed, Russia’s aversion to R2P was not because Vladimir Putin is “the crude defender of sovereignty as so often presented”, but rather the West’s selective deployment of it. In August 2008, Russia invoked R2P to avert “genocide” in South Ossetia as justification for its war on Georgia. And in February 2022, Putin invoked the 1999 Nato intervention in Yugoslavia in an effort to legitimise the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, claiming that Moscow was undertaking military action to prevent a “genocide”. The Houthi spokesman Yahya Sare’e more recently echoed the language of humanitarian interventions past when he declared all Israeli-linked ships “legitimate targets… until the horrific massacres, genocide and siege against Palestinians” stop. The principle of R2P thus lives on mostly with the West’s enemies, as a sort of ideological blowback of 1990s humanitarianism.

In his new book The Lost Peace (2023), Richard Sakwa argues that the US-led liberal order was intended to supersede the postwar international system predicated on the UN Charter and “sovereign internationalism” established in 1945. Sakwa defines the Charter international system as combining “respect for sovereignty while fostering the habits of multilateralism through sovereign internationalism”. At the end of the Cold War, many in Washington believed that this system should be replaced by a triumphant US-led order. In it, “there appeared to be no limits to the Atlantic power system”. At the very moment when Nato seemed destined for obsolescence – the Atlantic pact was deprived of its antagonist with the dissolution of the Soviet Union – US-led humanitarian intervention gave it new life.

Recently, “Western credibility” has been diminished by the wildly disparate reactions to war crimes in Ukraine and Gaza. In one notorious example, Russia’s clear violation of article 54 of the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions against destroying, attacking, or removing “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population”, such as drinking water, was treated as an unambiguous war crime by Western leaders. Yet the same crime, perpetrated by Israel against the people of Gaza, was met with comparative silence. And this silence will come with a cost: Western liberal norms are likely to have even less weight in the Global South now, and competitors like China will appear a more honest partner.

But there is a greater moral offence at play in Gaza than mere Western hypocrisy. The US is currently furnishing Israel with bombs while supposedly giving the people of Gaza “humanitarian aid” – effectively dispensing a bandage for a wound that it helped to inflict itself. In concentrated form, this represents a truth at the heart of all humanitarian efforts. As the journalist Joshua Craze puts it in the Baffler, wealthy donors in the West “despair over the plight of the poor, as if they had nothing to do with it. The plight of the poor, however, is inextricably linked to the behaviour of the Global North.” If Israel is “successful” in forcing the population of Gaza into the Sinai desert, the presence of Western-funded humanitarian aid organisations sent to receive them there might even be used to set a grim precedent: ethnic cleansing enabled by humanitarianism, justified on the grounds that the population is kept alive.

The demise of the dream of a 21st-century, America-led humanitarian order raises unsettling questions about what comes next. Will the future be worse – a world shorn of any pretense to concern for universal principles at all? Or will the death of the liberal order clear the way for a more democratic, accountable and egalitarian world? South Africa’s genocide case against Israel offers hope. Symbolically, it has already transformed the role of the Global South from mere victim to active agent of history. But as many have noted, international law itself is on trial before the ICJ. As the New Year University law professor Rob Howse has said, the outcome of the case will determine whether international law and its courts really are just a “white man’s world” – a conclusion that would leave those outside of the West with few peaceful tools at its disposal, wholly reliant upon “resistance, struggle and disruption” to advance their calls for justice.

The merits of South Africa’s suit won’t be decided for years, but within a few short weeks, the court will likely decide on whether the “provisional measures” it has requested will be awarded. These would bring an emergency halt to Israel’s relentless assault on Gaza “to protect against further, severe and irreparable harm to the rights of the Palestinian people under the Genocide Convention, which continue to be violated with impunity” – a humanitarian intervention that the West seems determined to prevent.

[See also: Donald Trump and the politics of retribution]

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