David Rieff is the bête noire of the international humanitarian relief and human rights movements. In a decade of acerbic commentary on the world’s worst humanitarian crises — Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, Kosovo, Sudan, and Afghanistan — Rieff has cast himself as the jaded critic of good intentions gone awry, a confirmed pessimist out to slay ill-considered idealism in a stubbornly cruel world. Yet much of his writing also has the feel of willful provocation, a mask for his ambivalence in the face of devilish moral and practical problems. That is certainly the case in A Bed for the Night, his thoughtful and passionate meditation on what he calls “humanitarianism in crisis.”
Rieff is a very smart man, a compelling writer, and, unlike many commentators on international affairs, he has been to the places he writes about. He has, as he puts it, “done my best to rub my own nose in the horror of the world.” From his firsthand experience, Rieff illuminates in depressing detail the gap between the noble ambitions of many contemporary humanitarian relief groups — preventing war and injustice — and their actual capabilities.
Tracing the origins of major organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, and CARE, he describes how many of them have moved from their founding principle of neutrality — which gave them all-important access to victims — to advocacy. This new approach sees them encouraging the international community to undermine tyrants, stop civil wars, and halt ethnic cleansing. Moving beyond “mere charity” and seeking to “right wrongs rather than alleviate them,” Rieff argues, has too often allowed humanitarian groups to be hijacked by major powers and the United Nations. Sometimes these relief agencies are used as a fig leaf for actions that major powers take in their own interests, as in Afghanistan; at other times they are used as cover for the powers’ inaction, as in Bosnia and Rwanda, where NGOs were held up as a solution to something only governments could have solved.
Rieff is especially critical of the blurring between humanitarian relief and human rights activism, which has led aid groups to withhold relief from countries that fail to honor human rights norms. He further asks whether human rights advances are doing anything to prevent future humanitarian crises. Despite the rise of international law and the successful prosecution of a few war criminals, Rieff writes, “populations in danger today have no more reason to count on being rescued than the populations of Auschwitz or the Warsaw Ghetto did in 1943.”
Rieff singles out author Michael Ignatieff, who has written hopefully of a “revolution of moral concern,” as well as groups like Human Rights Watch for particularly withering criticism. He asks, “What, if anything, [have] our good intentions, our new legal norms and our faith in the binding nature of this new ethic of moral concern…accomplished in societies like Congo that…are unquestionably in agony? How many more genocides will it take to shake the advocates’ faith in their revolution?”
But this strikes me as a straw man. I know of no human rights activists who are as naively optimistic as Rieff portrays them. On the contrary, it was Human Rights Watch that warned to no avail in 1997 that the Rwandan-backed invasion of what was then called Zaire by Laurent Kabila’s army could end only in disaster. Ignatieff, for his part, was last heard from on the op-ed page of The New York Times, asking bleakly whether, in the aftermath of September 11, “the era of human rights has come and gone.”
It seems to me that human rights advocates, like most intelligent people confronting these issues, are torn between hope and despair — and mindful of the risks of unintended consequences. For all his pugnacity, Rieff likewise seems torn, going left and right through arguments that too often feel like shadowboxing. On one hand, he traces the politicization of aid work to the fact that “a humanitarianism that holds itself aloof from the political consequences of its actions is increasingly becoming indefensible.” On the other hand, his bottom line is that “what humanitarianism offers on its own terms is contribution enough… The things it is now being called on to do, such as helping to advance the cause of human rights, stopping wars, and furthering social justice, are beyond its competence, however much one might wish it otherwise.”
That is surely reasonable. Alas, it was George Bernard Shaw who wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Bill Berkeley has reported extensively from Africa, covering the genocide in Rwanda. He is the author of The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe, and Power in the Heart of Africa.