Last week’s deadly paroxysm in Iraq spread its malice widely, bringing harm to hundreds of Iraqi civilians, an untold number of Iraqi rebels, dozens of coalition soldiers and contractors, and tens of journalists and humanitarian aid workers.
That the violence is indiscriminate, making little distinction between noncombatants and fighters, is not new, and has been an element of the conflict since the beginning. Just over a year ago, during the American invasion, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence agents arrested, imprisoned, and, in several cases, tortured relief workers, accusing them of spying before finally releasing them.
Weeks later, U.S. forces killed several journalists, unwittingly or otherwise (the circumstances surrounding the death of Al Jazeera correspondent Tarek Ayoub remain uninvestigated by coalition commanders). Then there was the August truck bombing of the U.N. headquarters in the Canal Hotel, which drove the organization from Iraq and started an epidemic of similar explosions targeting large numbers of Iraqis, many of them associated with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).
Up until last week, U.S. officials maintained that the key to many of the attacks is contained in a letter allegedly penned by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a progress report he intended for Al Qaeda leaders on his efforts to start a civil war in Iraq. That was before the outbreak of seemingly spontaneous bouts of resistance around the country. The explanation from many Iraqis for the violence is much simpler. “Nothing has changed,” said an Iraqi friend on a recent visit to New York. “And it’s beyond belief to most of us that America is powerless to fix the things that are broken, or to employ people, or to provide security. It’s as if the war just ended yesterday.” The situation in Iraq today may indeed reflect both these views.
What has changed in recent weeks is the frequency of the attacks, and the increasingly assertive identification of so-called “neutral” observers and non- combatants with one side or the other. In this way, civilians in Fallujah became victims of an American anti-insurgency drive, and in some manner complicit in the killings of four American security contractors. The head of the Irbil office of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, gunned down with his wife by unknown assassins in Mosul, was also fair game. The detention of hundreds of Iraqis at Abu Ghreib prison has been mirrored by a rash of hostage taking of men like Fadi Fadel, a Canadian humanitarian worker, and Soichiro Koriyama, a young Japanese freelance photographer many journalists know as an energetic fixture in Arab capitals.
What happened in Iraq last week might signal a simple shift in tactics, a conviction by rebel fighters that a hostage provides a measure of symmetry with America’s advanced weapons. The more disturbing conclusion is that the flood of foreigners who descended on Iraq over a year ago is becoming an indistinguishable mass, associated only and inseparably with occupation.
‘We are allegedly witnessing the blooming of a universal moral conscience that mobilizes the energies of all towards the continuous improvement of the global human condition—under the banner of the UN for some and the US for others,” writes Jean-Hervé Bradol, president of Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF), in a new collection of essays, In the Shadow of “Just Wars.”
“Having symbolized this representation of the world, humanitarian organizations are obliged to confront it with the actual suffering they encounter in their work. . . . To what extent has the proliferation of so-called ‘just’ wars and the recent enthusiasm for ethical and humanitarian values benefited populations exposed to mass violence?”
There is no quick answer to that question, but a survey of recent conflicts, including Afghanistan, East Timor, Colombia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Algeria, suggests mixed results. The contributors to Just Wars (Cornell University Press) propose that in a number of these cases, humanitarian actors, mindful of donor money, access to target populations, or politics, forget their duties to those on the “wrong” side in such conflicts. In Sudan, for instance, aid operations are used alternatively to “mollify authorities” or support the insurgents. “Humanitarian actors are heavily implicated in the abuse of humanitarian action,” two of the contributors write.
In Kosovo in 1999, writes journalist David Rieff, relief agencies were “subcontractors to the NATO war effort,” which essentially meant siding with a belligerent in the conflict, if only for the delivery of basic necessities.
“For if the humanitarian ideal is that easily co-opted by power, what is its real nature?” Rieff wonders. “Or, to ask the question even more harshly, is there something within the humanitarian idea that makes it peculiarly susceptible to this kind of political appropriation?”
Rieff is making a grander political point, but part of his vexing question raises issues of definition. Words like “just,” “ethical,” and “humanitarian” have taken on very different meanings since 9-11, and “humanitarian concern” has been a belated leitmotif of both the American and British cases for war in Iraq. U.S. officials now refer to the tyranny of the last regime with great frequency, given the difficulties locating banned weapons. While the appalling human rights record of Saddam Hussein’s government is easily proved—a record that many believe compelled the world to act—the notion that the spread of “values” should be considered a component of humanitarian wars is more controversial.
“A combination of universal humanist morality and national security has been cited as justification for Western and US-British interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq,” writes Bradol. “Ethics and politics have become reconciled on the initiative of a handful of avant-gardist states that now consider the defence of fundamental liberties throughout the world as an essential component of their national interests.”
That is different from providing relief to those in need, and suggests that humanitarian agencies, more than ever before, risk being caught up in a project far more ambitious than their missions.
“When you are under the umbrella of any coalition,” said Dr. Rony Brauman, a former head of MSF who now consults for the organization, “you are perceived as one of the forces mobilized.” When there is a rejection of such a coalition, he noted, humanitarian organizations run the risk of being similarly dismissed.
“In Kosovo or Timor, it’s okay, because most of the population would welcome the [foreign] presence,” he said. “But it’s risky for us to be in Iraq or Afghanistan. Part of the population thinks we are kind of a social member of the military occupying force.”
Though MSF retains a presence in Iraq, Brauman said the organization decided early on that the country wasn’t a priority. The expected humanitarian disaster never occurred, and MSF, which specializes in emergency health care, decided that Iraqi doctors were more than capable and were well-enough supplied.
Brauman also says in Just Wars that American NGOs going into Iraq were subject to severe restrictions from the U.S. and were expected to function as an arm of the government.
“It’s quite specific,” said Brauman. “People in general do not deal with U.S. forces the way they deal with other forces. When you are working with British or French troops, it’s much easier.” Brauman said that during the first Gulf war, MSF worked alongside U.S. troops in northern Iraq, and cooperation with the Americans was “excellent.”
“But now if you’re seen with U.S. troops, it’s much more difficult,” he said.
Research assistance: Natasha Degen
Dr. Rony Brauman will be speaking at an event moderated by Samantha Power, Thursday, April 15, 7 p.m. at F.I.T.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 6, 2004