On "the Military Wing of Oxfam"

The strongest critique of needs-based humanitarian action is from the human rights movement itself, which argues that responding to crises by sending humanitarian relief is merely an excuse to avoid ‘more vigorous responses’. Humanitarian relief is increasingly seen as giving Western governments the appearance of ‘doing something’ in the face of a tragedy while providing an alibi to avoid making a riskier political or military commitment that could address the ‘roots of a crisis’. Under the cry that humanitarianism should not be used as a substitute for political or military action, they are in fact arguing for a new rights-based ‘military humanitarianism’. As journalist David Rieff notes: ‘humanitarian relief organizations … have become some of the most fervent interventionists’.

The rights-based critique of humanitarianism provided the military in Western states with the opportunity to portray their actions as increasingly ethical in the 1990s. Ironically, this occurred at the same time as armed interventions moved away from the UN Blue Helmet approach that overlapped with the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and consent. As Michael Pugh observes, ‘military humanism’ is no longer an oxymoron because military action has increasingly been justified through defending human rights goals. From the perspective of the military establishment, this new role is important and the cultures of the military and the human rights activist are increasingly being brought together through the idea of helping the ‘victim’, as can be seen from recruitment advertising in Britain and the United States. The humanitarian motives for military action have been so heavily stressed that some critics have warned that the British Army is in danger of being flaunted as ‘the military wing of Oxfam’.

SOURCE: From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention, new ed., by David Chandler (Pluto Press, 2006), pp. 48-49 [reference citations removed]

Well, sure, but the Atlantic slave trade could not have been suppressed without the intervention of the British Navy. Nor could slavery have been suppressed in the United States without the intervention of the U.S. Army (against whom my own ancestors fought). Would selective, righteous boycotts of rum, sugar, molasses, tobacco, and cotton have been as fast and effective? The Royal Navy and the U.S. Army both served as the “military wings” of abolitionists.

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