In this post, I want to look at some of the differences – and perhaps conflicts – between human rights activism and humanitarian action (or humanitarian intervention). Obviously, some definitions to start with. There’ve been enough discussions on the definition of human rights on this blog, so I’ll focus now on humanitarianism. (Note: I’m leaving aside the more problematic issue of armed humanitarianism).
Definition of humanitarianism
According to Wikipedia,
humanitarianism is an ethic of kindness, benevolence and sympathy extended universally and impartially to all human beings. No distinction is to be made in the face of human suffering or abuse on grounds of tribal, caste, religious or national divisions.
However, the concept of humanitarianism has become more precise and restrictive over the last decades. In fact, it is now generally understood to be shorthand for “international humanitarian action“, which in turn means international emergency action to alleviate widespread human suffering resulting from war, civil war, famine, drought, natural disasters and other humanitarian crises representing
a critical threat to the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people, usually over a wide area. (source)
When you think about humanitarianism, you think about the Red Cross, the UNHCR, MSF, WFP etc. The focus is on the alleviation of widespread suffering and the saving of lives.
Hence, there is a close link between humanitarianism and human rights activism. Humanitarianism deals with rights violations. The absence of suffering is a human right, as is life. Of course, human rights are about much more than that. Free speech, democracy, religious liberty etc. are not about suffering or death, at least not normally). Nevertheless, humanitarianism shares its goals and ideals with part of the human rights agenda, and can therefore be understood as a subset of human rights activism.
Differences between humanitarianism and human rights activism
This link doesn’t mean that there are no differences between the two approaches. I’ll try to mention a few of them here. Apart from the more narrow scope of humanitarianism, compared to human rights activism, the main differences are:
Short term and urgency
Humanitarian agencies such as those mentioned above are by definition engaged in conflict zones or disaster zones. Their only objective is the protection of civilians against immediate harm resulting from war, famine etc. Hence, they are focused on the very short term future: making sure people survive, have enough to eat and are physically secure. Human rights activism, on the contrary, will also look at longer term results and less urgent needs, such as education, institutionalized (as opposed to emergency) healthcare, poverty etc.
Humanitarianism is mainly forward looking, whereas human rights activism reserves a lot of its attention to the past, and more specifically to justice for past human rights violations (including criminal justice).
Humanitarianism also looks at the immediate causes of suffering, e.g. a war, a disaster etc., whereas human rights activism will tend to identify the root causes behind these immediate causes, e.g. bad governance, poverty, discrimination and other “structural injustices” which surpass the timeframe and the tools of the humanitarian.
Humanitarianism means unconditional action. Given the urgency of the suffering they want to alleviate, agencies will go in, no matter what. The war can still be going on, the disaster can be unfolding… The human rights activist, however, will often point to prerequisites which have to be present before some specific human right can be realized, and without which action is futile (e.g. the removal of a dictator as a prerequisite for freedom of the press). A related point: humanitarianism takes a few human rights in isolation, and works on those only. A human rights activist will look at the whole system of human rights, and stress the interdependence of all human rights.
Humanitarianism tries to be neutral. It doesn’t take sides in a conflict or in a (civil) war. All suffering is viewed as equally deserving of alleviation, whether it is the suffering of the victim or the suffering of the aggressor (“a universal duty to act in the face of human suffering”). This isn’t moral relativism, but a practical necessity in many cases. If the humanitarian agencies want to have access to the people who are suffering, they often don’t have the luxury of criticizing any of the parties in the conflict, of outspoken public advocacy, and of “naming and shaming”.
The human rights activist, on the contrary, has to take a stand. Human rights aren’t politically neutral. They require, to a certain extent, democratic government, and non-democratic government is often a root cause of many rights violations.