Ethical Quandaries in War Zones, When Mass Atrocity Prevention Fails

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Humanitarians are no longer necessarily viewed as selfless angels in war zones. Their motivations and mastery, their principles and products are questioned from inside and outside of the community of aid and protection agencies. Like the poor, war victims will always be with us. Coming to their rescue requires understanding of the ongoing transformations to contemporary humanitarian action in wars and the evolution of humanitarian culture – its values, language and behavior. An agreed culture of cooperation has given way to a contested one of competition resulting from militarization, politicization and marketization. Preventing mass atrocities is preferable to halting them; but the record of preventing them has been dismal. And even with sufficient political will to act or react, the history of postintervention results also has been abysmal. When mass atrocity prevention fails, a ‘learning culture’ is required: more responsible reflection and less rapid reaction. Traditional principles are unhelpful; guidance to effective action does not require strict adherence to humanitarian ideology but rather to considered calculations about least worst options.

Policy Implications

  • While the use of the military to intervene in humanitarian emergencies is usually considered a last resort, the longer atrocities continue the higher the barriers to entry and the higher the political and military costs. The option of earlier rather than later humanitarian intervention should be considered.
  • The gloss of the ‘humanitarian’ adjective should not obscure the fact that the use of military force necessarily involves death and destruction. Truth in packaging is required about the expected and inadvertent consequences of humanitarian intervention.
  • While individual, corporate, and government donors emphasize effectiveness, the criterion of low overhead costs is unrealistic and counterproductive. For contemporary wars, humanitarian agencies must invest in training and research.
  • While no one becomes a humanitarian or contributes monies to make a career or profit, fund-raising imperatives and institutional turf battles are a primary driving force in humanitarian action. More incentives for enhanced cooperation are required to make the most of limited resources and to save lives.
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