In 2007, author David Reiff wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in which he said, in reference to the situation in Darfur, that at some point the interests of humanitarians and human rights advocates will diverge. In Khartoum yesterday, that is exactly what happened.
While organizations like Save Darfur content and Amnesty International were trumpeting their victory, baseline humanitarian organizations like Oxfam and MSF International scrambled to distance themselves from the ICC indictment. The simple reason is that the man under indictment, President al-Bashir, had just ordered the expulsion of almost all foreign NGOs.
Reiff argued that in their quest for the holy-grail of justice, foreign human rights activists often lose sight of the needs of people on the ground. What's more, they often see things which just aren't there. For example, writing two years ago, which was well into the Darfur crisis, Reiff said that "some of the mainline relief NGOs, notably Doctors Without Borders, . . . disputed the assertion that what's going on in Darfur is, in fact, genocide."
The counterargument runs that humanitarians, in their dedication to saving lives at all costs, often overlook the bigger picture, leading them to oppose options, like military interventions, that might more quickly resolve the crisis.
Obviously, in the mind of the Sudanese government, there has been collusion going on between the two camps. Rather than expend the effort to parse everything out, the humanitarian baby is getting tossed out with the human rights bathwater.
I've been in on these debates in university lecture halls, where the call for "muscular humanitariansm" gets the crowd's blood boiling. But now seeing what the consequences are in the real world makes me shudder.
There is not going to be a military intervention in the Sudan anytime soon, and organizations like the African Union and the People's Republic of China are going to scream bloody murder to get the ICC to back down. In the end they just might succeed.
As usual, the lives of the innocent hang in the balance.
(First published Mar 6, 2009 in World Politics Review)